Google asks FCC for help with its tiny hand-motion sensors

Global Market for Internet of Things (IoT) Sensors in Healthcare
Google is researching motion sensing technology. (BCC Research)

Google has taken its Project Soli cause to the FCC, requesting an authorization to operate its fixed and mobile field disturbance sensors in the 60 GHz band at a different power level than what’s currently allowed.

When it comes to the internet of things, Google has thrown its hat in the ring like any good tech giant, and it looking to advance a sensing technology that uses miniature radar to detect touchless gesture interactions. Billed as “the only interface you’ll need,” Project Soli uses radar for motion tracking of the human hand. As Google explains, “We're creating a ubiquitous gesture interaction language that will allow people to control devices with a simple, universal set of gestures. We envision a future in which the human hand becomes a universal input device for interacting with technology.”

The Commission allows operation of “mobile radars in short-range devices for interactive motion sensing” within the 60 GHz band, the unlicensed millimeter wave band generally used only by WiGig systems and a small number of industrial and scientific stakeholders—but only at power levels that Google said are too restrictive for optimum use of the sensors.

Field testing of device prototypes within the currently allowed power levels showed that blind spots can occur as close as 5 cm to the sensor location. “Low power levels lead to user dissatisfaction from missed motions, the perception of intermittent operation and ultimately fewer effective interactions,” Google argued.

Instead, the internet giant wants to rely on a European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) standard known as EN 305 550.1 (PDF), which defines the conducted power, mean power spectral density (PSD), equivalent isotropically radiated power (EIRP) and mean EIRP consistent parameters that Google said would allow optimization, while avoiding interference with other devices in the band.

It sweetened the pot in its request (PDF) by tying its waiver request to the FCC’s loftier goals, saying it would “encourage the provision of new technologies and services to the public” consistent with Section 7 of the Communications Act of 1934, align with the Commission’s intent to allow radars to “detect hand gestures very close to a device to control the device without touching it,” and advance the Commission’s efforts to harmonize its regulations and keep pace with global standards.

The Soli chip incorporates the entire sensor and antenna array in a compact package that’s smaller than a quarter, and it can be embedded in wearables, phones, computers, cars and IoT devices. The applications will rely on “Virtual Tools,” which are gestures that mimic familiar interactions with physical tools. Imagine an invisible button between your thumb and index fingers—you can press it by tapping your fingers together. Other interactions could include a virtual dial that you turn by rubbing thumb against index finger, or a virtual slider that users can grab and pull in the air. Feedback, meanwhile, is generated by the haptic sensation of fingers touching each other.

Google isn’t the only one eyeing the 60 GHz band these days, and the FCC’s decision in the waiver request will likely have ramifications beyond Project Soli. The Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP), for instance, is actively working on creating networks and reference solutions for the band; it used Mobile World Congress 2018 to showcase its progress.

Both Deutsche Telekom and Telenor are gearing up for trials of fixed wireless in the band, in Hungary and Kuala Lumpur, respectively, and Facebook collaborated with Intel and Radwin to deliver a reference design for Terragraph-certified 60 GHz solutions based on the Intel architecture.