This Tiny Sensor Turns Your Thumbnail Into A Trackpad

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Like the football phone or the Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio, humankind has always dreamt of melding two technologies together to create a synergistic improvement on our meager, exhausting existence. Today we have NailIO, a solution that adds a ray of light to our user interface needs by melding touchpads and thumbs.

What is NailIO? It’s a wearable sensor that sits on your thumbnail. You can draw on it with your other fingers, swipe in any direction, and even type with it on a cellphone. Created by researchers at the MIT Media Lab, the little touchpad is great for use when cooking, walking, and doing hand-intensive work.

“It’s very unobtrusive,” said MIT graduate student Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao. “When I put this on, it becomes part of my body. I have the power to take it off, so it still gives you control over it. But it allows this very close connection to your body.”

Wearable nail stickers that were popular in Asia inspired Kao to create a way to stick capacitive sensors, a battery, and Bluetooth radio all into something the size of a postage stamp. They’ve tested the system in various situations including in the kitchen and at work. They created the prototypes by printing copper onto a capacitive surface and they expect to be able to add decorative stickers over the NailIO sensor.

“The hardest part was probably the antenna design,” said Artem Dementyev, another graduate student. “You have to put the antenna far enough away from the chips so that it doesn’t interfere with them.”

Will we soon be rubbing our nails to dash off an email on the run? Probably not, but alternative user interface tools are an important part of the expanding mobile ecosystem. While maybe we won’t need an Apple Watch powered by a Magic Thumb trackpad, I could see this being used in situations when discretion and hands-free access are needed… and to that we offer a firm thumbs up.