The days of reaching for a notepad, phone or tablet in the middle of the night to scrawl down a note to yourself might soon be over thanks to a system that translates what you write in the air into editable text.
Called Airwriting, it was developed at Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and puts sensors that 'read' handwriting gestures into a wearable wristband.
"We envision it being a perfect complement for speech and gesture recognition in future wearable computer systems," said lead developer Christoph Amma, of KIT's Cognitive Systems Lab.
It works using similar technology already in smartphones such as acceleration sensors and gyroscopes. They plot an accurate and changing picture of where your hand is in space and report back to a database that contains a vocabulary.
Previous approaches to arrive at editable text used single gesture recognition, but Airwriting stores a statistical model of the characteristic signal pattern for every letter of the alphabet. The system promises a person-independent word error rate of 11 per cent and a person-dependent rate (where it learns your particular writing style) of only 3 per cent.
Originally encased in a glove, Airwriting was the recipient of a Google Faculty Research Award worth US$81,000 (NZ$95,030) in early 2013. The technology has since been reduced in size and now fits into a single wristband, positioning it comfortably into the burgeoning wearables sector.
Currently the system processes movements at approximately .83 seconds per character, but faster processing and smaller devices promise performance gains, the researchers said.
It's conceivable Airwriting could be packed into a smart watch or ring, the vocabulary greatly expanded by accessing machine learning technologies that access and process language remotely, in the cloud.
If successful, Airwriting could be jumping on what's shaping up to be a very lucrative gravy train in which global names have invested heavily.
Samsung took an early lead with its Gear line of smart watches which connect to an Android smartphone, while Google has had some success in working with developers to come up with applications for its wearable specs, Google Glass.
Apple is widely expected to be launching the so-called 'iWatch' - a wearable device many think will be the company's first challenge to Gear, Google Glass and fitness bands like Jawbone and Fit.
Deloitte predicts 10 million wearable devices will be sold this year, while Juniper Research predicts the industry will be worth A$19 billion by 2018.
A system to write in the air was suggested back in 2013, when a paper presented to an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference by the South China University of Technology proposed a system based on Microsoft's gesture control camera system Kinect.
But Airwriting needs no external sensor, and Amma says the system also circumvents the problems that can affect speech input.
"It's unaffected by environment noise and bystanders aren't distracted - nor can they eavesdrop on what was said."
Airwriting gained interest at CeBIT Germany 2014 and Amma said his team was talking with several companies from different sectors about further research and applications.
- The Age