Sit back, relax, and surf the web with your feet
By Jacqui Cheng
The future of computing could include a foot-activated input device, according to some HP researchers in the UK. The researchers have filed a patent for a foot-controlled user interface that is intended to be used with a wearable computing device, but may also be used with a desktop computer.
Unlike existing foot "mice," the wireless device is to be worn on the foot, not operated as an external device by the foot. This would allow a freer range of motion and presumably more natural use. It is intended to be strapped to the foot or shoe of the user and, using an accelerometer and magnetic sensor, a reference unit can calculate relative positioning of the foot to translate it on the user interface. Various foot movements could be programmed to mean specific actions, such as twisting the foot for a left or right click. Although this sounds like a sport only to be practiced while on the comfort of your own couch, the patent claims that the device could also be used while standing.
Why the foot, though? The patent says that the operation of the computer by the foot "allows the user full use of hands and senses where not occupied by the presentation of information to the user." While this sounds great in theory—I could sit back and eat potato chips at the same time as I surf the internet without getting my mouse and keyboard greasy—I think the "where not occupied by the presentations of information to the user" part is where it gets tricky. There comes a point where the user's brain is too occupied with information—foot twisting, right-clicking, and processing visual data—to be able to make much use of those freed-up hands. I already can't have a normal phone conversation while intently reading something on the web, much less try to actually do something else with my hands.
However, this solution does show potential for people who have disabilities or severe carpal tunnel, for example. Voice recognition and dictation software has improved vastly over the years, but there are still limitations for what the user can accomplish via these methods alone. A free-moving foot apparatus could mean increased computer control for those who had trouble before. Such a device could even alleviate other physical issues related to computer use—such as back and posture problems—since it would not require the user to be tied down to a desk.
It will probably be a long time before we see such technology come to fruition, but developments in wearable computing are always fun to think about. With similar technology, we could all instantly become Tom Cruise in Minority Report, frantically waving our hands around to move important data from Plexiglas screen to Plexiglas screen. Except instead of hands, it'll be our feet, and instead of Plexiglas computer screens, we'll be wearing "eyeglass displays" like Geordi LaForge.