It's called the "Magic Finger." The technology was presented at the at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, and built by a group of researchers from the University of Alberta, University of Toronto and Autodesk Research. The Magic Finger is a device that looks a bit like a thimble or those rubber coverings used to make grabbing paper easier.
It allows one to use finger gestures to control devices even if the device isn't present -– for example, the finger cold swipe across the user's shirt and engage the text message function or the ringer. "If I am walking down the street and the cellphone is in my pocket, I can make a swiping gesture and execute a function like making a call," Tovi Grossman, a scientist at Autodesk Research, told Discovery News.
The finger works by using two small cameras. One can "see" the texture of whatever surface is nearest. The other can sense motion. That makes it possible to not only sense the swipe movement but also alter the input according to the texture of whatever is nearby. So a Magic Finger could be set to send a different input to a device based on whether it is swiping over fabric or wood.
Grossman and his colleagues are thinking beyond phones. He noted Google Glasses are a display mechanism, but an elegant input system still has to be worked out, and Magic Finger could be one. It could also be hooked up to a game system, a la Microsoft's Kinect. The cameras are also sensitive enough to sense microscopic QR codes, which could be put on just about anything.
Grossman said he doesn't see it as a replacement for a mouse, as it can't be as exact. But for inputs that needn't be precise – and swiping on a smartphone isn't – it would work well. "It changes how we interact," he said. "You can use any surrounding object as a peripheral for digital devices."