This $10 Hack Could Let Your Apple Watch Sense Everything You Touch

Researchers have figured out a way to read the unique, electromagnetic thumbprints of objects through a smartwatch.

There’s a big problem in technology today. Our phones and watches are jam packed with radio antennas and sensors to communicate with the smart devices around us. But most of the world isn’t smart. It’s full of dumb old door handles and toolsets we’ve inherited from parents. So our mighty apps and “connected experiences” can’t see any of it.


New joint research coming out of Carnegie Mellon’s HCI Institute and Disney Research presents an intriguing, patent-pending solution that could make its way to commercial products soon. It’s called EMSense, and it would be implemented as a small, inexpensive chip installed into any smartwatch. As you touch objects, EMSense treats your body as a giant antenna to read their otherwise invisible electromagnetic (EM) signals and “see” what you touch.

“[Most electronic devices] have EM signatures,” says Carnegie Mellon graduate student Gierad Laput. “But for passive objects like steel ladders–which are conductive–they pick up EM signals from their immediate environment, like fluorescent lights or power lines. Meanwhile, non-conductive objects like pens and plastic chairs are not capable of generating EM signals.”

In other words, the system can identify anything capable of conducting electricity, whether or not it’s something that you plug in. It’s pretty wild technology that builds off of other, still-unbelievable Disney Research projects that involve reading faint levels of electrical resistance, like multi-touch houseplants, tablets that can distinguish multiple people, and microphones that turn your ear into a speaker.

The researchers imagined a few practical scenarios for the tech, like when you start brushing your teeth (with an electric brush), your watch would start a timer. Or when you open your office door in the morning, you’d be notified of your calendar events for the day. They even set up a Dremel tool to automatically display a step-by-step tutorial on a watch–which makes our minds buzz with what this tech could do in a kitchen.

In reality, the potential accomplishment here is larger than any single use case or context. Because EMSense isn’t just solving a problem in smarthomes or making our smartwatches seem halfway useful. They’re actually taking a crack at resolving a far bigger issue: How does our digital world understand our analog one–without forcing us to demolish and rebuild it, first?

About the author

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