All the information you need could be in your pocket

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Smartphones have become an indispensable part of our daily lives and because of their portability we bring them everywhere, but viewing information on our devices isn’t always convenient, safe or possible. 

If your phone is tucked into a briefcase, backpack, pocket or purse, it must be removed or unlocked to see a message or notification. And digging through pockets and packs is awkward during meetings, difficult when carrying items, and possibly hazardous when running, biking or exercising.

Could basic smartphone information be made visible when your device is stored away?

photo of Antony Albert Raj Irudayaraj and Nikhita Joshi woth PocketView display devices

L to R: PhD candidates Antony Albert Raj Irudayaraj and Nikhita Joshi from the Cheriton School of Computer Science’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

In Antony’s shirt pocket is a car remote–sized device prototype displaying HI, a message to initiate or encourage social interactions. In Nikhita’s right pant pocket is a phone-sized prototype displaying a mail icon, indicating that an email has been received.

That’s the question a team of human-computer interaction researchers at the Cheriton School of Computer Science explored. Their solution turned out to be transparently obvious — to display basic information by shining it through clothing.

The new technology — which the researchers have dubbed “PocketView” — uses bright, low-resolution LED arrays in devices of various pocketable sizes to display basic information. The displays can function either as a stand-alone device or be connected wirelessly to a smartphone using Bluetooth.

close-up of PocketView display devices

“We explored ways in which you can view information when your smartphone is in your pocket or another location,” explains Antony Albert Raj Irudayaraj, a PhD candidate at the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “The idea is not to show all the information that you would normally see on your smartphone display. These are displays that show minimal information. That’s good enough if you’re walking or biking, for example, to show basic navigation instructions. Or let’s say you received a message and don’t want to divert attention from what you’re doing. You can peek at the display and see the notification.”

Before the team created a variety of display form factors, they conducted an online survey of 112 people to understand their desire for information when a smartphone is tucked away, the variety and location of pockets people have on their clothing, and the types of objects stored in them. 

The survey found that two-thirds of respondents wanted to access information on their smartphone when it’s not easily accessible. The survey also revealed that people wear clothing with pockets in a variety of locations and that they store many kinds of objects in them, most commonly phones, keys and fobs, masks and wallets. Some gender differences were revealed as well. Male respondents were more likely to carry larger items such as phones in their upper thigh pant pockets, whereas female respondents typically used a wider range of pockets across clothing to store their phones and other personal items.

“Some of the survey results challenged us to rethink the size, shape and functionality for the displays,” explained Nikhita Joshi, a PhD candidate at the Cheriton School of Computer Science. “The different sizes are important because so much women’s clothing has tiny pockets. A phone in the front pocket can be uncomfortable, so having something small just gives people way more options. We created a whole variety of form factors that would also be suitable for smaller pockets that are common in women’s clothing.”

Having determined that display devices of a variety of sizes and shapes would be desirable, the team then conducted light-transmission experiments to see if LEDs can shine through a range of fabric types, colours and weaves. As expected, thin and light-coloured fabrics had greater transmission, but the experiments also confirmed that many darker-coloured fabrics and denser weaves with patterns are transparent enough to see the lit LEDs beneath them, particularly indoors.

The original prototype the team created was a self-contained, battery-powered device with 64 LEDs in an 8 by 8 matrix, a device roughly the size of a phone. But based on the survey findings, the researchers also created pocketable prototypes the size of a pen, car remote key fob, earbud case and phone case. The goal was to construct devices that could fit easily into a range of pocket sizes, including the smaller ones often found on women’s clothing.

photo of PocketView form factors

PocketView prototypes in different form factors — (a) an earbud case, (b) a pen, (c) a car key remote or fob, and (d) a phone case.

“A nice aspect of our work is that you don’t need to instrument the clothing itself,” Nikhita explained. “Your clothing can remain as is and it can be worn and washed as you like. Our approach of using a display that shines through fabric lets you wear your clothes as is and gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility where the display is kept.”

Although similar information can be displayed on a smartwatch, they remain expensive and far from ubiquitous. And even if someone wears a smartwatch, PocketView could be a complementary device to compensate for limitations. Antony explains, “If a smartwatch is covered by the sleeve of your jacket it might be hard to access when your hands are full.” 

“A smartwatch is also worn on just one location,” Nikhita adds, “whereas these display devices can go on any location on your body that has a pocket, so it is a bit more diverse.”

The pocket displays can serve a variety of purposes. They can be used as notification assistants, perhaps providing navigation instructions while walking or biking; as fitness-tracking devices that show step counts, calories burnt, heart rate, or fitness goals; or as social displays to show a message to others — even medical notifications to indicate a potential emergency.

photo showing PocketView's interaction vocabulary imagery

The team designed simple icons to convey information.

The numeral 5 (a) shining through the front pocket of cotton pants could indicate minutes before a meeting, the heart icon (b) through a knit dress could indicate heart rate, the mail icon (c) shining through a hoodie indicates that email has been received, and the M icon (d) shining through the front pocket of exercise clothing indicates that a text message has been received.

Along with the practical side of the display devices and their capacity to show information and notifications in an easy way, the team is also interested in the new technology simply because it’s fun. 

“Obviously we’re focused on the tech and programming side of the invention,” said Cheriton School of Computer Science Professor Daniel Vogel. “But even just as a fashion accessory, it’s something people told us they want. People could use it at clubs or in sports or in so many other ways. It’s such a simple thing but also such a radical idea that has so much potential. It also doesn’t require expensive, exotic electronics. Antony built and prototyped these devices in the HCI lab, and they could easily be put into production.”

To learn more about the research on which this feature is based, please see PocketView: Through-Fabric Information Displays, which was presented virtually at UIST 2021, the 34th ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology.

Please also see the research paper: Antony Albert Raj Irudayaraj, Rishav Agarwal, Nikhita Joshi, Aakar Gupta, Omid Abari, and Daniel Vogel. 2021. PocketView: Through-Fabric Information Displays. In: Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST 2021).

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