One of our favorite topics related to wearable health tech devices is the question of control. How can you create a user interface that is easy to use but that does not require complex or intrusive equipment. We’ve covered smart garments and touch pads and proximity sensors, each of which have their strengths and weaknesses. Researchers in Germany have taken a novel approach to the problem, using a system that is related to carrier pigeons.

A team at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) has created an electronic skin with a unique property. It is sensitive to magnetic fields. In fact, it is so sensitive that it can detect the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is a thin, temporary tattoo that can tell which way is north. The sensor puts out a tiny electrical current that is strongest when the device is pointed to the magnetic North Pole, and is weakest when pointed south. The differences are enough to determine hand motions.

The researchers created a system that let a subject use hand gestures to control a video game. The person could control the movements of an animated panda bear by gesturing left or right, or by moving a hand back or forth. The system could be used for applications ranging from helping someone navigate to controlling wearable devices.