MIT Media Laboratory researchers are developing a wearable device that turns the user’s thumbnail into a miniature wireless track pad.

To build their prototype, the researchers packed capacitive sensors, a battery, and three separate chips — a microcontroller, a Bluetooth radio chip, and a capacitive-sensing chip — into the thumbnail-sized device. The engineers built their sensors by printing copper electrodes on sheets of flexible polyester, which allowed them to experiment with a range of different electrode layouts.

The capacitive sensing registers touch. A thin, nonactive layer is placed between the user’s finger and the underlying sensors.

The team envisions that the technology could allow users to control wireless devices when their hands are full. The device could also augment other interfaces, as well as enable subtle communication via text.

The researchers have also been in discussion with battery manufacturers and have identified a technology that they think could yield a battery that fits in the space of a thumbnail. A special-purpose chip that combines the functions of the microcontroller, radio, and capacitive sensor would further save space.

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