Speek Notifications

Speek Notifications is an Android application I made for fun which tells you about your notifications when you hold your hand over the proximity sensor. I use the CereCloud Voice service to synthesise speech in one of two voices. To prevent Speek running while your phone is in your pocket I also use the gravity sensor to check if the device is on a flat surface. Visit the project on github to download the source code.

Demo Video


A screenshot of Speek - an Android app which reads information about your notifications when you cover the proximity sensor.

What Is Around-Device Interaction?

One of my biggest research interests is gesture interaction with mobile devices, also known as around-device interaction because users interact in the space around the device rather than on the device itself. In this post I’m going to give a brief overview of what around-device interaction is, how gestures can be sensed from mobile devices and how these interactions are being realised in commercial devices.

Why Use Around-Device Interaction?

Why would we want to gesture with mobile devices (such as phones or smart watches) anyway? These devices typically have small screens which we interact with in a very limited fashion; using the larger surrounding space lets us interact in more expressive ways and lets the display be utilised fully, rather than our hand occluding content as we reach out to touch the screen. Gestures also let us interact without having to first lift our device, meaning we can interact casually from a short distance. Finally, gesture input is non-contact so we can interact when we would not want to touch the screen, e.g. when preparing food and wanting to navigate a recipe but our hands are messy.

Sensing Around-Device Input

Motivated by the benefits of expressive non-contact input, HCI researchers have developed a variety of approaches for detecting around-device input. Early approaches used infrared proximity sensors, similar to the sensors used in phones to lock the display when we hold our phone to our ear. SideSight (Butler et al. 2008) placed proximity sensors around the edges of a mobile phone, letting users interact in the space beside the phone. HoverFlow (Kratz and Rohs 2009) took a similar approach, although their sensors faced upwards rather than outwards. This let users gesture above the display. Although this meant gesturing occluded the screen, users could interact in 3D space; a limitation of SideSight was that users were more or less restricted to a flat plane around the phone.

Abracadabra (Harrison and Hudson 2009) used magnetic sensing to detect input around a smart-watch. Users wore a magnetic ring which affected the magnetic field around the device, letting the watch determine finger position and detect gestures. This let users interact with a very small display in a much larger area (an example of what Harrison called “interacting with small devices in a big way” when he gave a presentation to our research group last year) – something today’s smart-watch designers should consider. uTrack (Chen et al. 2013) built on this approach with additional wearable sensors. MagiTact (Ketabdar et al. 2010) used a similar approach to Abracadabra for detecting gestures around mobile phones.

So far we’ve looked at two approaches for detecting around-device input: infrared proximity sensors and magnetic sensors. Researchers have developed camera-based approaches for detecting input. Most mobile phone cameras can be used to detect around-device gestures within the camera field of view, which can be extended using approaches such as Surround-see (Yang et al. 2013). Surround-see placed an omni-directional lens over the camera, giving the phone a complete view of its surrounding environment. Users could then gesture from even further away (e.g. across the room) because of the complete field of view.

Others have proposed using depth cameras for more accurate camera-based hand tracking. I was excited when Google revealed Project Tango earlier this year because a mobile phone with a depth sensor and processing resources dedicated to computer vision is a step closer to realising this type of interaction. While mobile phones can already detect basic gestures using their magnetic sensors and cameras, depth cameras, in my opinion, would allow more expressive gestures without having to wear anything (e.g. magnetic accessories).

We’re also now seeing low-powered alternative sensing approaches, such as AllSee (Kellogg et al. 2014) which can detect gestures using ambient wireless signals. These approaches could be ideal for wearables which are constrained by small battery sizes. Low-power sensing could also allow always-on gesture sensing; this is currently too demanding with some around-device sensing approaches.

Commercial Examples

I have so far discussed a variety of sensing approaches found in research; this is by no means a comprehensive survey of around-device gesture recognition although it shows the wide variety of approaches possible and identifies some seminal work in this area. Now I will look at some commercial examples of around-device interfaces to show that there is an interest in moving interaction away from the touch-screen and into the around-device space.

Perhaps the best known around-device interface is the Samsung Galaxy S4. Samsung included features called Air View and Air Gesture which let users gesture above the display without having to touch it. Users could hover over images in a gallery to see a larger preview and could navigate through a photo album by swiping over the display. A limitation of the Samsung implementation was that users had to be quite close to the display for gestures to be detected – so close that they may as well have used touch input!

Nokia also included an around-device gesture in an update for some of their Lumia phones last year. Users could peek at their notifications by holding their hand over the proximity sensor briefly. While just a single gesture, this let users check their phones easily without unlocking them. With young smartphone users reportedly checking their phones more than thirty times per day (BBC Newsbeat, 4th April 2014), this is a gesture that could get a lot of use!

There are also a number of software libraries which use the front-facing camera to detect gesture input, allowing around-device interaction on typical mobile phones.


In this post we took a quick look at around-device interaction. This is still an active research area and one where we are seeing many interesting developments – especially as researchers are now focusing on issues other than sensing approaches. With smartphone developers showing an interest in this modality, identifying and overcoming interaction challenges is the next big step in around-device interaction research.

TEDx Demos

TEDx badge

A couple of days ago our group showed off some of our research during TEDx Glasgow University. It was a fun experience. We don’t often get to engage with a non-academic audience so it was refreshing to chat about future technology with non-computing scientists. I came away from the demo session feeling inspired and with some fresh ideas about where to take my research.

I presented a gesture interface for mobile phones, using around-device gestures as input. People seemed to find this modality particularly attractive for use in the kitchen, when hands are often full, wet or messy. I was also showing how wearables could be used alongside mobile phones. People seemed to enjoy the novelty of this, although understandably there was some doubt about having to wear another accessory (alongside fashion items like watches or bracelets). I definitely feel that future wearables need to be designed with fashion in mind so people want to wear them as accessories first and interfaces second.

Inevitably someone mentioned interfaces found in Minority Report and Iron Man – I hope HCI finds ways to inspire people’s imaginations about interfaces of the future in the same way that Hollywood has.

Multimodal Android Development Part 1

This post is the first of two which gives a brief introduction to creating multimodal interactions in Android applications. I’ll briefly cover some of the SDK features available to you as an Android developer which you can use to create richer interactions in your apps. Example code will be quite concise because I assume you have at least a basic knowledge of Android development. Feel free to leave any comments suggesting how I can better explain these concepts, or to let me know if I’ve made any mistakes or omissions.

What is “multimodal” interaction?

Multimodal interaction, put simply, is interaction involving more than one modality (e.g. multiple senses). For example, an application may provide a combination of visual and haptic (touch) feedback. These types of interaction design provide a number of benefits, for example allowing those with sensory impairment to interact using other senses, or allowing interaction in contexts where one sense may be otherwise occupied.

One of the most ubiquitous examples of a multimodal interaction is the way in which mobile phones combine visual, audible and haptic feedback to inform users of a new text, phone call, etc. This combination of modalities is particularly useful when your phone is, say, in your pocket. Obviously you can’t see the phone, but you will probably feel the phone vibrate or hear your ringtone as new notifications appear.

Haptic feedback in Android

Most handheld Android devices have some sort of rotation motor in them allowing simple haptic feedback. Although not common in tablets (largely due to size constraints), all modern Android phones will have tactile feedback available. You can control the phone vibrator through the Vibrator class. Note that in order to use this, your Manifest must request the following permission: android.permission.VIBRATE

/* Request the device's vibrator service. Remember to check
 * for null return value, in case this isn't available. */
Vibrator vibrator = (Vibrator) getSystemService(Context.VIBRATOR_SERVICE);

/* Two ways to control the vibrator:
 *  1. Turn on for a specific time
 *  2. Provide a vibration pattern */

/* 1. Vibrate for 200ms */

/* 2. Vibrate for 200ms, pause for 100ms, vibrate for 300ms. */
long[] pattern = new long[] {0, 200, 100, 300};

/* Perform this pattern once only (repeat := -1). */
vibrator.vibrate(pattern, -1);

/* Vibrate for 200ms, followed by indefinite repeat of
 * 100ms pause followed by 300ms vibrate. Setting
 * repeat := 2 tells the vibrator to repeat at offset
 * 2 into the vibration pattern. */
vibrator.vibrate(pattern, 2);


Touchscreen gestures

Using touchscreen gestures to interact with applications can be fun, efficient and useful when users may be unable to select a particular action on the screen. For example, it can be difficult to select a button on-screen when running or walking. A touch gesture, however, is a lot easier and requires less precision from the user. The disadvantage with touch gestures is that if not used sparingly, there may be too much for the user to remember!
Creating a set of gestures for your application is simple: create a gesture library on an Android Virtual Device using the Gesture Builder application (available on the AVD by default) and add a GestureOverlayView to your activity layout. In your activity, you just have to load the gesture library from your resources and implement an OnGesturePerformedListener.


private GestureLibrary mLibrary;

public void onCreate(Bundle savedInstanceState) {
  /* 1. Load gesture library from the res/raw/gestures file */
  mLibrary = GestureLibraries.fromRawResource(this, R.raw.gestures);

  if (!mLibrary.load())
    /* Error: unable to load from resources! */

  /* 2. Find reference to the gesture overlay view */
  GestureOverlayView gov = (GestureOverlayView) findViewById(R.id.gestureOverlay);

  /* 3. Register callback for gesture input */

The callback method for gesture performance receives a Gesture as an argument. This can be used to obtain a list of predictions: which gestures in your library that Android thought the gesture was. With these predictions, you can use the prediction score (or contextual information) to determine which gesture the user was most likely to have performed. I find it useful to define a threshold for gesture acceptance, so that you can reject erroneous or inaccurate gestures. The best way to choose this threshold value is through trial and error: see what works for you and your gestures.

private static final double ACCEPTANCE_THRESHOLD = 10.0;

public void onGesturePerformed(GestureOverlayView overlay, Gesture gesture) {
  /* 1. Get list of gesture predictions */
  ArrayList predictions = mLibrary.recognize(gesture);

  if (predictions.size() > 0) {
    /* 2. Find highest scoring prediction */
    Prediction bestPrediction = predictions.get(0);

    for (int i = 1; i < predictions.size(); i++) {
      Prediction p = predictions.get(i);
      if (p.score > bestPrediction.score)
        bestPrediction = p;

    /* 3. Decide if we'll accept this gesture */
    if (bestPrediction.score > ACCEPTANCE_THRESHOLD)

private void gestureAccepted(String gestureName) {
  /* Respond appropriately to the gesture name */