Although undetectable by our limited five senses, most electrical devices emit small amounts of unique electromagnetic noise, which is actually transferred through our bodies. So by modifying the hardware to detect those signals, researchers have created a smarter smartwatch that can sense exactly what you're holding.
The team, featuring researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research, modified a simple low-cost wearable radio to pick up those electromagnetic noise signals, and developed custom smartwatch software to distinguish the noise from one device to another. The results are a wearable device called EM-Sense that can automatically tell if you're opening a door, operating a computer, or even brushing your teeth.
The biggest benefit to this new technology is that it can make a smartwatch more than just a second screen for your smartphone. Imagine your wearable automatically starting a timer when you start brushing your teeth, or reading your emails and to-do list when you open the door to your office in the morning. It's especially useful for when driving, as your smartwatch would know when your vehicle is running, and automatically limit the amount of messages or notifications you receive so you can stay focused on the road.
There's no word on when the next Apple Watch or Android Wear wearable would gain this slick functionality. The hardware that makes it possible is cheap enough to easily miniaturize and mass-produce, but the software would have a bit of a learning curve to familiarise itself with all of the devices and objects you interact with on a regular basis. It would be totally worth the effort, though, if it meant you never forgot to set a timer for your laundry ever again.