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3/7/2012
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Mobile Device Input: 2 Intriguing New Technologies

Check out our video coverage of mobile input technologies shown at Mobile World Congress. One uses haptics to let you "feel" the relative importance of emails and Facebook comments.

Immersion
(click image for larger view)
Immersion
Data input on mobile devices has always been a challenge for me. I loved the BlackBerry because, as a touch typist, it just worked. Over time I've become more used to glass screens with virtual keyboards, and I find that the sounds and haptic response on some devices are a bit more comforting, but imperfect. I've paired my iPad to Bluetooth keyboards, but it always reminds me of what Steve Ballmer said to me when he saw me doing so: "Work hard enough and you can turn anything into a PC."

What's next? At the recent Mobile World Congress I saw two technologies that attempt to improve the user input experience on mobile devices.

First, Immersion was demonstrating new concepts in haptics. It calls one such concept HD haptics, which is probably best described as a more-responsive, more-precise tactile performance. It uses what are known as piezo actuators, which give it a broader frequency response. (The actuators are made by Senco, which is a division of Samsung.)

Immersion called another, related, concept dynamic haptics, which change in real time in response to movements. In the demonstration, there was a cowbell on the phone's display, and when I shook the cowbell--well, I can't say that I have much experience in cowbell shaking, but it felt just like that's what I was doing.

But these demonstrations--from the cowbell, to shaking maracas, to circling the rim of a wine glass--were really there to showcase the capabilities of Immersion's technology. The idea is that device manufacturers will license the technology--Immersion counts LG, Nokia and Samsung among its licensees, and Pantech is actually using HD haptics now--and developers will use it in applications.

Outside of the fun little tricks, Immersion showed some practical examples. For instance, imagine scrolling through your Facebook photos that people have commented on and finding, via "feel," the ones that have received the highest number of comments. It actually felt heavier in those spots. The same can be done with email. Immersion showed how you can configure e-mail so that your boss' e-mail gives you a bit of a taser-like buzz when you're scrolling through your inbox. Immersion calls this "ambient awareness" and is attempting to create ways to communicate clues in the background. Their theory is that developers will be able to simplify user interfaces so that not as much information clutters up the app screen.

Inpris was demonstrating something entirely different, which it calls UpSense. The tagline: "It's The Write Future." This is really for tablets, and the idea is based on using gestures to create letters and numbers instead of using a keyboard. It reminded me a little bit of Palm Pilot's Graffiti, and although the company's CEO, Nissan Yaron, was fairly adept at using the gestures, I couldn't seem to get the hang of it. Like Graffiti, it probably just takes getting used to. However, I couldn't help but notice that when I challenged Yaron with a sentence of my own, it took him a while to gesture it in.

Yoran says that UpSense will be used "for gaming, music, general control of PCs and mobiles and much more." So maybe there's promise for other gestures, but I'm not really sold on this technology as a keyboard replacement. You can watch it in action (and my own fumbling) in the video below.

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