This giant smartwatch prototype has a shape-deforming backplate

Smartwatches are not an easy format for interaction designers. Their tiny screens and lack of buttons make it hard to give the user smart options in how to interact with the technology.

But interaction designers at Dartmouth College believe that they might have a solution. They've developed a smartwatch that lets users feel virtual objects, courtesy of a shape-shifting backplate.

In a concept device that's been named "RetroShape", every pixel on the screen has a corresponding tactile pixel (or taxel) on the rear. That means that programmers can use the wearer's skin underneath the watch to "feel" what's happening on-screen.

Sixteen independently-moving pins allow for shapes and movement to be rendered. The prototype is clunky and comes with a bundle of wires attached, but the technology could easily be improved and miniaturised if it became part of a commercial product.

Smart ring

Alongside RetroShape, the team has also developed a smart ring named "Fictio". It can deliver sensory feedback in six different ways, giving information to its wearer. For example, the team says, "If a wearer has plenty of time before the next meeting, the ring calendar reminder could be set to rotate freely."

"Only five minutes left before that meeting, the ring could be made to move with heavy resistance or forced to stop completely."

The watch, the ring, and a small collection of other devices will be presented at the 30th ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium (UIST 2017) in Quebec City, Canada this week.

"Understanding and improving how humans interact with computers are essential parts of technology development," said Xing-Dong Yang, assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth.

If you're more interested in a wearable you can use right now, check out our list of the best smartwatches.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.