Tom Cruise would have looked much less cool in the 2002 film Minority Report if he’d swiped through images on his computer display with gloves that required clunky data cables or heavy battery packs. A real-world glove promises to bring that sleek Minority Report–style future one step closer by harvesting energy from the wearer’s finger motions.
The prototype glove, called “GoldFinger,” uses piezoelectric transducers that convert the mechanical motions of the glove user’s fingers into electricity. It doesn’t generate enough power to keep the glove’s battery fully charged during typical usage, but shows how the technology could boost the battery charge or potentially reduce the battery’s size. Italian and U.S. researchers who developed the glove sewed electrically-conductive filaments into its nylon fabric to ensure maximum flexibility for the wearer—a crucial factor for a human-machine interface (HMI) glove intended to control computer or virtual displays.
”The use of a glove requires comfort and reliability and these requirements are not less important than the increased energetic autonomy of the device,” says Giorgio De Pasquale, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at the Polytechnic University of Turin, in Italy. “This also makes the difference between GoldFinger and other HMI gloves that use wires to send data, or large and heavy batteries for the supply.”
HMI gloves were first proposed in the 1970s and 1980s, and the earliest commercialized versions appeared in the 1990s for virtual modeling and certain medical applications. But along with those devices came user limitations in the form of stiff materials, rigid electronic components, inelegant data cables providing wired communication, and bulky power supplies.
GoldFinger, with its focus on freedom and flexibility, represents the latest, user-friendly generation of HMI gloves. All of the rigid electronic components and the battery are tucked inside an aluminum case located on the backside of the glove.
An optical port located on each finger emits LED light, allowing a computer to track the GoldFinger glove’s motions. De Pasquale’s younger brother, Daniele, a master’s degree candidate in computer engineering at the school in Turin, wrote the software that translates the finger gestures into computer system commands. (The current GoldFinger prototype, which serves as a proof of concept, has just one optical port.)
The Italian siblings-turned-researchers, who also enlisted the help of Sang-Gook Kim, a mechanical engineer at MIT, presented a paper detailing their research on 3 December at the PowerMEMS 2015 conference in Boston.
To test the glove’s energy-harvesting power, they opened and closed gloved fingers for 10 seconds. The motion generated an average of about 32 microwatts of power—enough for the glove’s optical port to operate for about half a minute per hour without drawing on any battery power at all. GoldFinger's’s current battery can keep the optical port powered continuously for 104 hours.
The energy-harvesting system may not sound impressive on the surface, but could realistically help extend the glove’sbattery charge during periods of low or medium usage. Its creators envision the glove primarily helping workers in industrial plants who might use it to occasionally interface with machinery in the midst of their normal work routines.
Specifically, GoldFinger would likely activate its optical port(s) during less than 10 percent of the normal workday. Such relatively low usage, say the glove’s developers, would allow the finger motions to significantly extend the battery life. It would last about 14 percent longer if the glove’s optical port is active for 5 percent of a shift. Energy harvesting would boost the battery life by up to 70 percent if the glove is active only 1 percent of the time. And that’s just the current prototype.
The lab version of GoldFinger already has a design “very close to a commercial version”; it accounts for production issues such as process and component availability, Giorgio De Pasquale says. But he and his colleagues plan to continue boosting the performance of the current prototype and working on potential spinoff devices.
HMI gloves have already found uses among a number of large companies. Automaker Daimler-Benz used its own version of “data gloves” to enable workers to grasp and manipulate virtual objects inside the passenger cabin of a virtual reality car. Technicians at aerospace giant Boeing have also used such gloves to simulate maintenance tasks on aircraft. Even pilots have gotten their hands in such gloves as part of cockpit simulations.
GoldFinger and similar gloves could also prove handy in applications such as design and 3-D modeling, allowing robot operators to remotely control the claws and other appendages of their machines, or giving surgeons a wearable remote tool for accessing crucial medical images or data.
“The primary goal of future-inspired researchers is to make available borderline technologies, even without sharply targeted applications,” the elder De Pasquale says. “The existence of the technology will push its demand and the demand will push the technology improvement.”
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.