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The FingerIO sonar technology is demonstrated on a smartphone and a smartwatch as fingers move across nearby surfaces. (Via FingerIO)

Using your fingers to type or track on mobile devices or ever-smaller smartwatch screens can be problematic for some of us. New technology developed at the University of Washington is pointing the way toward a possible solution.

UW computer scientists and electrical engineers have discovered a sonar technology that allows users to interact with their devices simply by gesturing on a nearby surface or even in mid-air. Called FingerIO, the tracking solution is detailed in a new story from the university’s Office of News and Information site UW Today.

FingerIO does not require outfitting the finger with any special sensors. It works by turning your device into an active sonar system using the microphones and speakers in the phone or watch.

The UW team includes students Rajalakshmi Nandakumar and Vikram Iyer and faculty members Shyam Gollakota and Desney Tan. They will be presenting a paper in May at the Association for Computing Machinery’s CHI 2016 conference in San Jose, Calif.

“You can’t type very easily onto a smartwatch display, so we wanted to transform a desk or any area around a device into an input surface,” lead author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering, said in the UW’s story. “I don’t need to instrument my fingers with any other sensors — I just use my finger to write something on a desk or any other surface and the device can track it with high resolution.”

According to UW Today, FingerIO “turns a smartwatch or smartphone into a sonar system using the device’s own speaker to emit an inaudible sound wave. That signal bounces off the finger, and those “echoes” are recorded by the device’s microphones and used to calculate the finger’s location in space.” FingerIO can accurately track two-dimensional finger movements to within 8mm.

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