Retractable string theory: Microsoft boffins design smart ID badges

Wearable computer prototype uses context to determine information displayed
The prototype badge. Credit: Microsoft Research.

The prototype badge. Credit: Microsoft Research.

Microsoft researchers have presented a new prototype of a 'smart' interactive ID badge that uses a retractable string as an input device, allowing the badge to detect when it's moved away from a user's belt and change the information it displays in response.

Outlined in a paper given at the Association for Computing Machinery's 2013 SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the prototype interactive ID badge incorporates a monochrome LCD screen.

"We imagine that our interactive badge could be used to support short, lightweight interactions with applications and information throughout the day without unduly distracting the user," the researchers write.

"For example, the wearer can quickly manipulate the display in 3D space to navigate information intuitively, even when only a couple of seconds of interaction are desirable. Scenarios include access to email, social networking, calendar appointments and online services such as search, mapping, weather forecasting and traffic updates. Furthermore, this approach could provide an alternative to active notifications in some scenarios by displaying information in a more passive, glanceable manner."

The prototype uses a 400x240-pixel monochrome LCD for the screen. The badge is powered by an NXP ARM Cortex M3 processor and has 32KB of SRAM and 512KB of flash memory. It also incorporates a Bluetooth 2.1 module.

The sensor designed to be attached to a belt runs a Cortex M0 processor and also has a Bluetooth module. A potentiometer is used to track the extension and retraction of the string.

Interaction is based on a combination of extending the badge away from the wearer's belt as well as using one of the 15 buttons on the badge's bezel.

The researcher's first prototype application was an indoor mapping system: when at rest, the badge displays standard ID information about the wearer. When extended away from the belt, the display changes to a map of the nearby area. By moving the badge while away from the belt and pressing a button, the map can be scrolled.

The researchers plan to explore the potential of the badge design, possibly incorporating a 'squeeze' sensor instead of buttons, a touchscreen, a colour display and/or Bluetooth Low Energy modules.

On the applications front, the badge could possibly incorporate calendar and contact information, social network access and traffic updates.

"One idea we are excited to explore is the notion of along-lived desktop GUI 'clipboard' where clipped content is associated with specific badge locations and may be retrieved by holding the badge in the relevant position before selecting 'paste' on the desktop," the researchers write.