Disney’s Incredible iPhone Accessories Can Hear How You Touch Them

Who needs sensors and circuit boards when you have ultrasonic waves?

Even the simplest iPhone dock or gamepad is a relatively complex device, filled with complex electronics that allow you to press buttons or turn knobs to activate the right circuits and send a signal like “turn the volume up” to your iPhone.


But a new project led by Gierad Laput and Eric Brockmeyer, in a collaboration between Disney Research and Carnegie Mellon, has the potential to rip the circuits out of your smartphone accessories, and create new interactions through nothing more than cheap, 3-D printable plastic. The project is called Accoustraments. Rather than depending on electrical signals to recognize knob turns and button presses, Accoustraments treats a smartphone accessory like an instrument.

In the video above, the team demonstrated a small handful of possibilities of this technology. They created an iPhone case built from soft, squishy tubes, that can recognize when it’s on a table, in your hand, or taking a photograph. They constructed an alarm clock that you could activate with a switch, and snooze by pressing a big satisfying button. And they demonstrated a toy car that could attach to a phone, but as an added bonus, its wheels actually sent their movement data to the phone, so the phone could display a realtime driving game. It’s wild technology, but none of these accessories would probably cost more than a buck apiece to mass produce.

So how is this actually possible? Each accessory is filled with a hollow chamber. The phone’s speaker sends out an ultrasonic sound through the tubing. Your ear can’t hear this sound, but the phone’s built-in microphone can. And so just as you can change notes on a musical instrument by pulling slides or pressing valves, Accoustraments can change input commands for a mobile device.

“That means you could build something out of cheap plastic or rubber materials, and using the commodity hardware on the phone, add buttons, sliders, knobs, etc,” the team tells Co.Design. “Using this approach, you can combine different . . . mechanisms to create a wide range of interactions.”

Each of these ideas would be possible by embedding the right circuits and sensors inside, but Accoustraments are constructed from dumb plastic spit out by a 3-D printer, because it’s the hardware and software on your existing mobile device that provide the brains behind the operation. And in theory, anyone could create their own Accoustraments, as the project uses machine learning to program new accessories relatively quickly that can operate with 99% accuracy.

Simpler mobile accessories that can be built for less money and environmental impact? Sounds good to us.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.