Welle: sonar-based gesture control for smart devices

As our devices and homes become smarter, so should our own ability to control them. Welle is a smart device deploying sonar-based gesture control and Bluetooth to turn any flat surface into an interactive space, enabling the user to control connected devices with the swipe of a finger.

Currently smashing its Kickstarter goal (achieved on day one), Welle has captured the imagination of the tech community, impressed and excited by the potential of the diminutive device. E&T spent some time with a prototype of the finished product.

Welle (pronounced ‘well-uh’, not ‘welly’) is designed to recognise handwriting and custom-defined gestures using its embedded sonar. The unit itself is approximately the size of two stacked packs of chewing gum, so is both highly portable for mobile use and neatly inconspicuous for permanent installation in home or office.

Welle’s preinstalled, highly sensitive gesture algorithm detects finger movement within a defined fan-shaped sonar area radiating out from the device. The gesture-detecting space is not huge, but still plenty big enough for all the simple swipes, strokes and character definition you’ll need.

One of the obvious uses for which Welle has been designed is the control of smart connected devices, obviating the need for multiple remote controls or even physically interacting with your devices full stop. Once you’ve set up the device to work with Welle and defined the necessary gestures, Welle is effectively ‘always on’, waiting to detect the gesture.

Simply leave it in a convenient spot in your home or on your desk and, when required, you perform the appropriate gesture to control the device in question. Welle supports multiple devices and gestures concurrently: it’s not a one-box, one-gesture unit.

For example, smart lighting can be controlled and the light hue and intensity adjusted with a single finger swipe from a side table or the TV can be turned off as you head upstairs for bed. Welle already offers a number of preset gestures for popular smart devices from companies such as Sonos, Samsung, Nest, IFTTT, Hue, Lifx, SmartThings, Belkin WeMo, covering everything from lights, doors, TVs, audio speakers, central heating thermostats and security systems.

Devices are connected to Welle via Bluetooth and then more granular settings are managed through the dedicated app. This app is currently available for Mac OS and Android, with the iOS version to come in the near future, following completion of the Kickstarter campaign.

One other attractive feature is that Welle only has to be within Bluetooth range of the device being controlled. It is not reliant on line of sight. Thus, you could have Welle by your bed and control devices in your kitchen, such as a smart kettle or coffee machine, all without getting out of bed.

Compared to infra-red, the ultrasound technology inside Welle offers a greater, more precise detection range and higher tolerance to low or extreme light conditions. Using sonar, Welle is also able to operate effectively on any flat surface, of any colour. The latest version of Bluetooth offers very low power consumption, so the rechargeable battery that drives Welle should last for days between charges. Charging is accomplished via the mini-USB port and you can also leave Welle permanently plugged into mains power, if you intend to leave it in one place.

Welle also works with computers, smartphones and tablets, designed as it is around the BLE chipset (Bluetooth Low Energy), with the handwriting recognition function an obvious candidate for broad gesture control of various apps on your device.  

Currently, all Welle control is limited to one-finger gestures, although the developers say they are intending to research multi-finger gesture tracking in the future. This would be attractive to users, but there is still plenty that can be achieved already with one finger and setting up multiple gestures for multiple devices. There are 12 core gestures available, as well as the ‘Welle Font’ - involving the full alphabet and numerals 0-9 - so there is considerable flexibility. It is also possible to control multiple devices with a single gesture, so you could, for example, turn off multiple smart objects in your home simultaneously.

There is a further neat twist to the Welle concept. For those of us not yet living in the smart home of the future, kitted out with a plethora of labour-saving IoT gadgets (i.e. most of us), Welle can also work with your existing non-smart devices. The Welle developers have partnered with the team behind SwitchBot, a small remote robotic device that can control any existing rocker switch (of any type, in any country) remotely, thus effectively newly smart-alising your old stupid device. We haven’t tried SwitchBot, but the premise appears to be sound and is at least one solution for incorporating your existing beloved gadgets.

The developers are also intending to release full API documentation for Welle on their GitHub page, so anyone can work on further extending the functionality of Welle.

We enjoyed our time experimenting with Welle, trying out a variety of gestures to control various devices. Welle is a very appealing proposition, offering as it does that killer one-two punch of a minimalist, deceptively simple and attractive design outside coupled with a highly flexible and powerful technology feature set inside. We can only imagine how the Welle concept will expand and elaborate from here.

Welle is available for pre-order from the Kickstarter project page

Q&A with Mark Zeng, founder of Maxus Technology

Creating Welle

Where did the inspiration for this product come from?
We found a fundamental problem with smart devices as their interactive surface is getting smaller and hard to interact. The alternative method, like using an app to control IoT devices, undermines the user experience. This gave birth to new controls like gesture and we have been seeing lots of product that are gesture supported. However, many of them offer only a handful of gestures like knock or wave. Welle is a product that extends the interactive surface area and offers high-input richness like tracking and writing recognition. With Welle, you can achieve shortcuts to your favorite functions by simply moving your finger. Given its high portability, you can use it in your home/office and almost anywhere you think about.

Have you experienced technical challenges in the design and creation of Welle?
Creating a product like Welle is not easy. We were confronted by many challenges during our development process. As Welle utilises ultrasound signal, which decays quickly compared to those low-frequency waves, we have to fine tune our algorithm to pick up those weak echoes. Moreover, to make Welle more portable, we pushed ourselves to shrink the size of Welle while not compromising the sensing by simulating the acoustic physical field of Welle. Last but not least, we made a lot effort to compress our whole framework to put everything in the chip so Welle can do the tracking and recognition parts itself.

What do you see in the future for Welle? Are there more ideas and applications for it?
We want Welle to be used widely, so we are actively looking at integrations with other applications. We already have lots of idea about integrating Welle with design tools like Photoshop and CAD software. We strive to fine tune our algorithm to make Welle work in different scenarios, like cars. In the future, we welcome partners to embed Welle into their products to provide natural HCI experience to customers.

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