There are many ways you can use  magnets nowadays, from hanging pictures on your fridge to charging your phone. These are commonplace uses for magnets, but a more futuristic application is right around the corner. Soon we might be using magnets not to influence the real world, but a virtual one.

Keyu Chen, a graduate student at the University of Washington, developed a sensor that uses electromagnets to track finger movements within Oculus’ virtual reality world. He developed the software while interning at Oculus, an American virtual reality technology company whose first virtual reality headset, Rift, is expected to ship in July. The sensors and magnets will pick up where the company’s headset leaves off.

The Rift uses a wireless Xbox controller to control your movements within the virtual reality world, but Chen wanted to take it a step further. His project, Finexus, was developed to take the virtual reality experience beyond video game controllers.  

“Sometimes you want something where you can actually use your fingers for dedicated motion,” Chen said in an interview with MIT Technology Review.

How Does It Work?

The sensors would allow users to go beyond the traditional joystick and buttons, to mounted magnets on the tips of your fingers that track every movement. Current tracking systems that are used in Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony systems rely on cameras to track your movements. When you move around and parts of your body are covered, it makes it impossible for the cameras to know exactly what is going on.

Right now, the Finexus uses a 3D sensor that tracks the small magnets attached to your hands, and can only work at a distance of about 12 centimeters or less. With such a small distance required to pick up the movements, a glove and sensor watch would likely be required when fully developed. The sensor uses four magnetometers to detect the signals given off by the electromagnets attached to your hand and then calculates the distance to determine where on the screen they will appear.

The technology could be used for many things in the virtual world, such as playing instruments where finger positioning is required. This software could also be used in sports where finger positioning on a baseball, softball, and football are  important to a throwers release.

Although the technology is still in the development stage, the future is bright for Finexus and its electromagnetic sensors. What would you do with this magnetic finger-tracking technology?

Photo by Sergey Galyonkin