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Clandestinely control your smartphone by stroking your hair

A hair extension interwoven with sensors would allow users to secretly open and control smartphone apps.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

The feeling of being stuck in a threatening situation is one known to many women -- and sometimes, reaching for an emergency help app -- such as Circle of 6 -- could potentially cause more danger. But what if there was a means whereby a natural gesture could trigger an app without alerting anyone nearby?

Hairware by Beauty Technology designer and Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro postdoctoral researcher Katia Vega is designed with safety in mind -- a hair extension woven with capacitive wire to act as a remote touch sensor to interact with a smartphone app. A hairclip with a Bluetooth module and Arduino microcontroller would allow the hair to communicate with the user's phone.

"We add new functionalities to hair extensions, turning them into a seamless device that recognises auto-contact behaviours concealed to outside observers. Therefore, Hairware brings the opportunity to make conscious use of an unconscious auto-contact behaviour," Vega wrote on her website.

"Hairware acts as a capacitive touch sensor that detects touch variations on hair and uses machine learning algorithms in order to recognise user's intention."

This means that various touch types could communicate different things to the app. One touch could open the app; a second touch, or a long stroke of the extension, could activate an app's function -- sending a message to a friend, for instance, or take a discreet photograph.

"Artificial hair extensions were chemically metallised for acquiring electrical conductivity and also keeping a natural colouration. We added layers of non-conductive hair extensions that are added for isolating the hair from the skin. Also, these layers improved the capacitor sensor values," Vega explained.

"Each time the user touches the top, middle or tip, the capacitor sensor differentiates these values. The circuit compares an output that transmits the pulse and an input, which receives the pulse. When a finger touches Hairware, it creates a delay in the pulse, and this delay is recalculated by the microcontroller."

The proof of concept works: at the Intelligent User Interfaces 2015 meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, Vega presented a paper on the hardware and software implementation of the device. Additionally, attendees were invited to test Hairware by using it to take selfies.