Saturday, January 12, 2008

Touch(less) UI + Accelerometer

We all know iPhone. Even though it's not available in Hungary as of yet, I've already had the chance to hold it in my hands and play with it. It's simply great. People say that it's because of the touch UI, but I don't believe that. It's not that simple. Lots of other manufacturers have already made phones with touch support, but for some reason the success of their products is not even comparable with iPhone's. I think it's because of Apple's approach to user interface, more importantly to user experience. They made it as simple as possible and it will be very hard for phone vendors to compete with it.

Motorola announced their ROKR E8 phone at CES 2008. It's a touch-driven phone, needless to say. The coolest feature that I found is that it doesn't have a physical keyboard, but it dynamically shows always the relevant keys based on what feature/program is being used at the moment. I remember of a patent that I have read about over at IntoMobile: Nokia had patented their invention of a dual-screen phone with touch support. My first reaction to seeing the drawing from the patent that the keyboard layout could be displayed on one of the screens and it could be dynamic: sometimes QWERTY, sometimes ITU-T, sometimes something else, something relevant. I'm very happy to see it to come true.

You might have already heard about that Nokia was planning to add tactile feedback support to their future phones, which means a little buzz when user presses one area of the (touch)screen. Very interestingly very similar to what Motorola has just come up with. You know, one of the biggest constraints of using a mobile phone instead of e.g. a laptop is screen size. And the size of the screen has so far been limited 1: by the device size (it must fit into one's pocket), 2: it had to have a keyboard. It seems that the trend for 2008 is that there will be no keyboard on smartphones at all. Ehm, I mean no real, physical keyboard - as opposed to virtual.

Have you heard that Nokia recently submitted another patent application for touchless UI? See Unwired View for more details. The basic idea described in the patent is that there would be sensors arrayed around the perimeter of the device capable of sensing finger movements in 3-D space. The user could use her fingers similarly to a touch phone, but actually without having to touch the screen. That's cool, isn't it? I think the idea is not only great, because user input will not be limited to 2-D anymore, but that I can use my thick, dirty, bandaged, etc. fingers as well (as opposed to "plain" touch UI). I'm a bit sceptic, though, how accurate it can be, whether the software will have AI or the user will have to learn how to move her fingers. We'll see hopefully very soon!

Finally, there is one more thing I'd like to mention here. It's the built-in accelerometer. I'm pretty sure that most readers have already heard of that the newest Nokia smartphones have built-in accelerometer. It's sort of a motion sensor that actually hasn't got so much publicity so far. I was always wondering why Nokia has not announced, advertised, etc. this piece of gadget. I mean at all. I can't remember if I have ever read any articles, blogs, etc. from Nokia about that they have put this extra hardware in their phone. You know, an accelerometer in a mobile phone is unusal. Not only to me, but to other people as well.

Why did Nokia not advertise this? If it's expensive, it doesn't make any sense not to advertise it. If it's cheap (I bet it is), then it doesn't have to be advertised, but then why add it to the phone at all? Just to see what the (developer) community thinks about it? What kind of applications can they make out of it? Although it's a good idea, I don't think it's a valid business reason. And you know, it was also unusual that Nokia published an API for developers to use this feature - but it was an R&D API! Knowing Nokia and using their SDKs for ages, I would say it's, again, very unusual. It's like "Let's publish this API so that we can see what others can find out with it, but doing it so that we don't have to announce it".

I wouldn't be suprised if the accelerometer eventually had something to do with the touchless UI. I have the feeling, since I'm a programmer, that even with the array of transducers (see the patent) it's not trivial to figure out what the user has done with her fingers. For example, it might be very important to know in what angle the user's hand is to the device ... and this is the point where the accelerometer comes in handy. It helps to know how the user's one hand holds the phone while making gestures with the other. And this altogether is the new thing.

Can't wait to read your comments,



Anonymous said...
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sirmilton said...

Mobile Accelerometer is the future of mobile apps, Its absolutely amazing what can be achieved with a few hours worth of designing. Check out this wallpaper with accelerometer feature, that Chris, our resident mobile developer and designer did for a bit of fun. It works on the K850i and you can download it for free at
Winston Jr

Jess said...

Hi Gabor, What do you think about the so called 'new kid on the block' with the Samsung Galaxy S Swype technology for input through the UI? We have certainly come along a long way since numbers on a physical pad were assigned to two or three letters.

Is this mobile media technology proprietary to Samsung? I've read promising reviews on this technology and was wondering if any mobile phone companies had plans to switch this from the standard touch screen qwerty typing through the UI?