Touchless gesture controls for smartphones has been tried before. But early iterations were buggy and people struggled to find a use for them. If you feel like you missed the boat, don’t worry: Gesture controls are back.

Huawei has been promoting gesture controls for its new flagship Mate 30. If you were having trouble figuring out just what exactly you’d use gesture controls for, Huawei is ready to tell you: It’s for eating crabs.

Well, not just crabs, obviously. But that’s one use case that’s gone viral since Huawei showed it off in an advertisement during the country’s Mid-Autumn festival -- coinciding with the season for hairy crabs, one of China’s favorite delicacies.

Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, is currently full of users testing out gesture controls on the Huawei Mate 30, but the ones featuring food are the most creative. (Picture: 31487492 via Doyin)

Since the ad came out, some Chinese netizens have been showing off how they use gesture controls to munch on shrimp, barbecued meat or anything else they fancy while air-swiping through videos on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

Eating is just one use case that seems popular on social media, though. Huawei’s Gesture Sensor available on the Mate 30 phones enables users to capture screenshots, flip through photos and control their music. It also has an AI auto-rotate feature that will rotate the screen according to the direction of your face and a privacy feature that automatically hides details if someone else is looking at the screen.

But these are lofty promises for how the tech can be used. It’s an open question whether it works well enough to be widely adopted or whether anyone will use it for something other than keeping their phones clean (or using the phone in a shower, as some phone-addicted commenters noticed).

Huawei’s ad shows a woman gracefully chewing on her crab while swiping away without worries of getting crab sauce all over her phone. (Picture: Huawei via Weibo)

The somewhat forgotten technology made a splash when it appeared with the Samsung Galaxy S4 back in 2013. But critics since then have slammed gesture controls as pointless. 

They’ve also been criticized as imprecise and clumsy to use, leaving users frantically waving in front of their smartphones. What’s the point of using gestures in front of a phone when the same gestures work more accurately just by touching the screen itself?

Nevertheless, companies are piling on the gesture control bandwagon. Google announced that its upcoming Pixel 4 -- to be fully unveiled this month -- will be equipped with a gesture control feature called MotionSense. The feature is a product of Google’s own Project Soli, and it’s supposed to be Google’s most advanced touchless gesture technology yet.

Other new phones this year have their own versions of touchless gesture control. LG’s G8 ThinQ includes it, and Samsung replaced hand gestures on its Galaxy Note 10 with gestures using the S Pen stylus.

The S Pen that comes with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 can be used as a remote, but its most attractive feature is probably acting as a remote shutter button for selfies. (Picture: Samsung)

“In some of the examples that we currently see from Samsung, LG, Huawei and others, they are mostly a novelty,” Canalys senior analyst Jason Low said.

User interfaces (UI) have evolved from button-based interfaces to more natural touch screens, and now things are moving toward voice control. The long term goal for hands as a key input method is more about creating new use cases and features, Low said.

While such use cases can be implemented in smartphones, they might be more useful in other devices. One promising area for gestures is augmented reality, according to Low. Another might be devices with smaller screens and thus smaller targets for fingers to hit, as with smartwatches.

Impressions about the new generation of gesture controls have been ambivalent so far. Some reviewers of LG’s G8 ThinQ said the reasons for using gesture controls haven’t been fully thought out. As for Huawei, one popular Chinese technology reviewer said that hand gestures can still lead to errors, like a swiping motion resulting in a screenshot instead of scrolling.

Getting crab sauce all over a US$1,200 phone doesn’t sound appetizing. (Picture: Reuters)

So the biggest issues facing gesture controls from the beginning still seem to be present. Even Google has stated that MotionSense on the Pixel 4 will continue to evolve. 

But at least for the people who really want to use their phones while they eat or cook, the option is there. This has already been good business for at least one company.

Chinese smartphone maker Transsion created an oil-resistant fingerprint sensor, helping it become a top smartphone company in India. Since many people eat with their hands in the country, the option of being able to unlock a phone with curry-covered fingers proved great for business, the company told the South China Morning Post last year.

Notably, though, Transsion’s technology allows people to eat and still touch their phones. So what’s the big benefit of touch-free gestures?

Perhaps Huawei really has figured out the best reason for gesture controls: Swiping through 15-second videos on Douyin while you eat. The app is a favorite in the country and had about 300 million monthly active users in 2018, according to the company. And with TikTok exploding in popularity in the rest of the world, maybe this is the thing that makes gestures take off.

International users looking to test out gestures on TikTok will likely have to use something other than a Huawei phone. The company has delayed sales of the Mate 30 in Europe since it can’t ship the phone with Google Play Services as a result of a US trade ban.

But there’s no need to panic yet. Maybe gestures with chicken legs will also work on the Pixel 4.

That’s some life-altering technology right there. (Picture: Harden_666888 via Douyin)