Microsoft may be prepping a 3D-sensing smartphone that lets users interact with it without touching the screen, according to company research and recent reports.
Microsoft places a distant third in the smartphone race but has still managed to generate optimism around Windows Phone 8.1, especially for Cortana, the OS's Siri-like virtual assistant. Having flexed its software muscles, the company could be turning to hardware next. Evidence is mounting that Microsoft will release a smartphone with 3D-sensing capabilities that could allow users to interact with the device without touching the screen.
In a Microsoft Research video and whitepaper, the company describes a "thin, transparent 3D sensor based on electric field sensing" that "allows for 3D finger tracking and in-air gestures on mobile devices." According to the company's research, when the user's hand comes within the sensor's proximity, it causes a measurable change in the electric field. The smartphone measures these changes and then employs machine learning to map the raw signals into a 3D position.
Microsoft's team claims its technology not only enables accurate tracking, but also boasts lower costs, smaller form factors, higher frame-rate sensing, and reduced power demands compared to competing techniques.
The research follows a number of recent online reports, all based on anonymous sources, that Microsoft plans to release a 3D-sensing smartphone this fall. Reportedly codenamed McLaren, the device is expected to debut under the Lumia banner and offer Kinect-like "3D Touch" interactions. According to blog Windows Phone Central, these interactions will include a feature called Mix View that allows users to hover their finger over a Live Tile to reveal additional functions. A tile for a given contact might transform to display related phone, email, Skype, and social media options, for example.
Microsoft has indicated before that it's interested in expanding Live Tile functionality. Earlier this year, a Microsoft Research video, which was subsequently deleted, showed tiles that made tools available without forcing users to fully launch the app. A user could tap values into a calculator app without entering full-screen mode, for example -- something that's not possible today. Whether this or "Mix View" shows up in a finished product remains to be seen, but Microsoft clearly believes Live Tiles can do more than launch apps and display updates.
A screenshot from the Microsoft Research video shows a user manipulating a cube via gesture.
Thanks to a barrage of sensors, McLaren will also allegedly be acutely aware of its surroundings. This will reportedly enable users to answer calls by simply bringing the device to their ear, or switch from handset mode to speaker mode by merely placing the phone on a table.
Microsoft's 3D-sensing technology will reportedly be exclusive to Lumia devices, at least initially. When and if McLaren arrives, it will still face competition in the 3D-sensing arena, however. Samsung's Air Gestures feature already enables limited in-air interactions, for example. Later this month, Amazon is expected to debut a smartphone with a 3D, perhaps even somewhat holographic, display.
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Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio
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