A new project out of the University of California San Diego shows how wearable technology could more easily integrate with the way people live — and that high-tech doesn't have to come with a high cost.

Researchers created a prototype glove fitted with sensors that follow the motion of someone's hands, which they tested by using American Sign Language (ASL). And they built it for less than $100 US.

The nanoengineering team used ASL because it involves many small motions that the glove's sensors would be able to read, providing a good test of its sensitivity to motion.

The lab where the glove was developed largely does research on projects for energy and biomedical devices; the glove fits into the latter category, lead author Timothy O'Connor told CBC News.

Ultimately, he said, the project was aimed at demonstrating the capability of wearable, stretchable electronics that could have the potential to help people.

"[We wanted] something that could handle the mechanical stress of being on a human being, which has lots of moving parts and fine motions," O'Connor said of the research, published in PLOS ONE.

Stretchable sensors were placed on the back of each knuckle and connected to a circuit board that worked with an open-source program on a computer or smartphone for the translation, O'Connor explained.

The information gathered by the sensors was transmitted to the devices via Bluetooth. Open-source software was chosen by the researchers to keep costs low, as it is publicly available and can be easily modified.

ASL glove

An overview of the gesture-decoding glove, which took about a year to build and was made for less than $100 US. (Timothy O'Connor)

It took about a year of research and development to determine what components would be used in the glove, with a special focus on the materials that would make the best sensor, O'Connor said.

Once the prototype was complete, O'Connor tested the glove by signing various letters of the ASL alphabet, or by spelling a short word, such as hello.

The tests found that the sensors were able to accurately determine all 26 letters in the ASL alphabet, O'Connor said, even though the hand motions for some letters are similar.

He added that the lab-made glove worked for several months and 1,000 uses before it needed to be recalibrated. "It's a good demonstration of how even low-cost electronics can perform a task that's pretty sophisticated," O'Connor said.  

Virtual reality and real-world uses

The researchers suggest the glove's technology could be applied to a number of other fields, including consumer electronics, virtual and augmented reality, telesurgery and technical training.

"Virtual reality is expected to be more prevalent than we see today," O'Connor said.

And its low-cost components mean the technology has the potential to be turned into something that could be mass-produced, O'Connor said, although that's not currently in his plans.

"One could imagine this technology — or many other wearable technologies — where instead of keypads or joysticks … you could control other types of technology [with something like the glove]," he said.

The glove could be used to help interpret for those who are deaf, O'Connor said, but he also sees potential for the glove to help control a smart home with gestures, or to make working with a robot more intuitive.

"Right now automation is becoming a huge field, and not just in huge industries, but in things like carpentry," he said. "I could easily see a human [wearing the glove] teamed up with a robot."

Two other possible uses for the glove, outlined in the research paper, could be using it to pilot aerial drones or to control bomb-defusing robots.

O'Connor said his former lab at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California San Diego is planning to continue research on the glove, as well as other wearable technology.

"A lot of people think that advancement [in technology] needs to be more expensive," O'Connor said. "[But we were able to] build something that's cost-effective and very human."