How to Write on Thin Air

"The phone can track what you are writing," Roy Choudhury said, and even if your penmanship isn't perfect it should be able to figure out which letter of the alphabet you are trying to write. Meanwhile, the accelerometer will track other movements as well. It should be possible to "write" yourself a note while driving your car.

"There are a lot of signals that the accelerometer captures," he added. "From all those signals, we can pluck out the part that comes from the moving vehicle, because there is a particular signature from a car's movements, and we can subtract that. "

A moving hand, for example, can change direction much more frequently and more quickly, than a vehicle. So the car can be taken out of the equation.

That may not sound too safe, but it could be a lot better than trying to text-message yourself on a keyboard that just seems to get smaller and smaller.

Real-Time Alerts on Traffic Congestion Via Cell Phone

The device would also be able to clean up the signal while the user is walking, or doing just about anything else, he added.

The Duke researchers are also working on an idea that has intrigued many other scientists since the advent of cell phones with accelerometers. Theoretically, it should be possible for cell phones to provide real-time alerts on traffic congestion.

"Imagine you want to go to the airport and you want to know what the traffic on I-40 is like," Roy Choudhury said. "You could potentially get data from the accelerometer readings of all the phones that are traveling on I-40 at that moment."

The data could be captured by the cell phone network and fed into a computer that could plot traffic conditions over a wide area as events are unfolding. So before heading for the airport, check the Web to see which route would be the quickest at that precise moment.

These new uses for cell phones would not require changes to the phones themselves, he added. The changes would be in the software, not the hardware, and because accelerometers are always on, there would be no additional drain on the batteries.

There are still "issues" to be worked out, Roy Choudhury said, but his students have some tangible evidence that they aren't just toying around. They traveled to Chicago earlier this month to pick up the first Hoffman+Krippner Award for Excellence in Student Engineering.

Make a note of that.

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