One of the challenges faced by the majority of smartwatch manufacturers lies in creating a natural and comfortable input method for such small devices. The Apple Watch relies mostly on touchscreen controls but also has a physical crown for scrolling, zooming and so on, and the Samsung Gear S2 features a rotating bezel surrounding the circular display. In other words, touch controls are not ideal for smartwatches considering their dimensions, and some manufacturers have invested more time than others in creating alternative control methods for their wearables. Samsung is, of course, one of the companies that have a habit of patenting new concepts and technologies with every opportunity it gets, and interestingly enough, a relatively old Samsung patent describing a projector-based smartwatch input method was recently discovered, revealing what could be the Korean company’s vision of the future.
The patent in question describes a smartwatch input method developed by Samsung, which relies on a projector to beam parts of the user interface onto the wearer’s skin on the forearm or the back of his or her hand. According to the patent description, “the wearable device includes an image projector configured to project a virtual user interface screen, a camera configured to capture an image, and a processor configured to detect a target area from the image captured by the camera […]”. In other words, a small projector beams certain UI elements onto the user’s skin, a camera keeps an eye on and “reads” the user’s interaction with the beamed UI, and the information is them processed by a chipset and translated into actions. The patent also describes the type of information that might be projected. For instance, when using a map application on the smartwatch, secondary information regarding businesses, landmarks, points of interest and so on can be projected on the wearer’s skin and act as additional screen real-estate. It also appears that the system would be capable of recognizing not only simple taps but handwriting and gestures as well. In addition, the patent suggests that the virtual UI technology could also be used for “head mounted display” devices, whether for VR or something more akin to Microsoft’s HoloLens.
At the end of the day, keep in mind that while the patent may have been discovered only recently, it was originally filed in November 2014. With that in mind, there’s no guarantee that Samsung continued working on the concept throughout the past couple of years, or if it will pick it up again at any point in the future. As is the case with a large part of Samsung patents, they’re not always an indication of what’s to come to the consumer market, but rather an inside preview on the company’s vision of the future.