Interface Schools

Mobile devices have come a long way from their walkie-talkie wartime roots, and their user interfaces have come further in a shorter time. Touchscreens are all the rage today, but in the future, where will the user interface reside?

Dawinderpal Sahota

January 10, 2012

8 Min Read
Interface Schools
What will the device of the future look like?

The Second World War saw the first use of transmission of speech by radio, when Motorola developed a battery-powered, backpack-mounted, two-way radio, called the ‘Handie-Talkie’ for the US military in the 1940s. It was credited as being the world’s first mobile phone. It wasn’t until 1979, however, that mobile handsets became commercially available to consumers, when Japanese mobile operator NTT created the world’s first automated cellular network covering the population of Tokyo.

Mobile phones have come a long way since then. We’ve seen manufacturers add colour screens, cameras, personalised ringtones, Bluetooth and SMS technology. Today’s smartphones have internet connectivity, touchscreens, app stores and developer ecosystems, but what can we expect to see in the next stage of evolution in the mobile phone industry?

Perhaps the most crucial aspect in the advancement of mobile handsets is the growing dependency of consumers on these devices as a multipurpose communications tool. People are using phones not only to communicate by voice, but also by SMS, email and social networks. In many developed markets, smartphones are a lynchpin of the consumer lifestyle, whether it’s to keep users informed of global news, updates from social networks, entertainment through games, music and video, or by providing an endless array of apps, from those that are useful to our everyday lives, to those suited purely to idle procrastination. Mobile handsets are arguably the most important object in people’s lives, and the chances are they will become even more important in the future.

Gus Desbarats has won an array of creative design awards for his work in developing new handset concepts. He is also a futurologist and chairman of industrial design agency TheAlloy. Speaking to he says that one of the most important aspects of the next wave of handsets to enter the market will be how they integrate users’ “important but simple information”.

“Mobile wallets will take off to facilitate in-store and online payments, we’ll see handsets being used for identification purposes, and even for access keys – such as house keys. And they’ll also be important for ticketing, such as being used as rail or bus tickets,” he says.

This evolution marks the changing nature of the mobile phone. No longer is the design of the hardware the most influential or crucial factor in consumers’ minds when they buy a new handset, as, beyond the inclusion of a touchscreen, the user experience is almost exclusively defined by what is offered on the software side. The difference between smartphones and feature phones is more than just the form factor, but the access to sophisticated operating systems and their ecosystems, with app stores, internet browsers, and content and contact synching.

And with the rise of cloud services, handset design could begin to take even more of a back seat, as devices begin to serve merely as an access portal to the cloud. As this evolution takes place, one argument is that, rather than have one smartphone that encompasses all of the functionalities that a user needs, consumers will be more interested in possessing a variety of devices with different screen sizes.

“What will become important is screen size, and that will depend on what information you’re accessing,” Desbarats says. “Yes, there will be more people watching TV on small form factors, but I think you’re going to see just a greater diversity of form factors. We’re seeing that already with the iPhone and iPad. People are simply consuming content on form factor that makes sense.”

However, handset manufacturers are not about to sit back and let software providers define the mobile phones of the new era. Device manufacturers have also invested heavily in research and development to ensure that consumers opt for their particular brand.

Manufacturers are fast approaching the time when they will have to entice users with new designs, and they may need to move away from the now common 3.5-4in, touchscreen device, popularised by the first iPhone. In the short-term, what this means is that manufacturers will be focused on creating devices that “are more user-friendly,” says Desbarats, as today’s smartphones aren’t as user-friendly as some might think.

“Smartphones have been hijacked by the iPhone movement,” he says. “They’ve created this nice, beautiful device. But at the end of the day, if you really think about it, they’re not actually very easy devices to use on the go,” he says.

When, for example, a user wants to browse through their list of contacts, there are arguably more user-friendly methods than scrolling through an alphabetical list using your finger. TheAlloy works with a host of handset manufacturers and creates concept phones for them, ideas from which will be used in handsets that will commercially available later down the line. While the agency cannot divulge details of the ideas it works on with manufacturers, it also creates its own concept phones to demonstrate fresh and innovative design ideas. One of the concept phones that it has created has an interface that allows users to simply squeeze and tilt the handset in order to scroll through content, which the company claims is easier than using touchscreens while on the go.

“All of these kinds of things just mean that you can navigate in a shorter time and with less dexterity focused on the screen,” he says. “You need to be able to do stuff while you’re moving—that’s what’s missing in mobile phone interfaces generally. Everyone’s going app crazy but there’s a lot of stuff that can just be done on the go, such as setting access permissions. These things can be done much more naturally while you’re doing other things and we’ll see more of that.”

But in order to incorporate this “squeeze and tilt” functionality into phones, Desbarats says that manufacturers must move away from the rigid, solid structure of today’s devices. Indeed, flexible handsets enabled by nanotechnology are now being touted as the future of the mobile device by some vendors.
It may sound implausible, but Samsung has confirmed that it will be launching a smartphone with a flexible screen in 2012. The firm has been showcasing its flexible Super-AMOLED displays since 2010 and company spokesman Robert Yi confirmed in an earnings call in October that products featuring the technology will be on sale early next year.

Market leader Nokia is also working on flexible handsets and Tapani Jokinen, head of design technology insights at the Finnish vendor, says it will be introducing similar twist and squeeze functionalities in its future phones.

“The new properties that nanotechnology bring to us are really beginning to impact our designs, so we are trying to figure out how we could use this to bring meaningful experiences that really matter to users,” he explains.

Taking the concept a stage further, Nokia hopes to challenge the traditional design of the mobile phone, with a project called Iho. Iho is the Finnish word for ‘skin’ and the project aims to create a skin-like wearable phone. “This is an electronic skin that we could use to create a flexible, transformable phone that you can attach to your skin and it will always be there with you 24×7,” Jokinen explains.

The phone would be wrapped around the user’s arm. Nokia’s experimentation has found that, using nanotechnology, the components in a phone do not have to be in specified places and can instead be moved around. The technology can also be used to create materials that are not just flexible, but also stretchable.
“The material allows you to stretch the whole device and make it bigger, and it will record all of the events that the user experiences during the day. It will enable us to create totally new types of devices that have never been seen in the market before,” he says.

But it’s not just the introduction of more flexible handsets that will challenge what has now become the “traditional” design of the smartphone. For example Korean firm Pantech has said that it will introduce a portfolio of Android handsets equipped with ‘touchless’ hand gesture recognition technology.

The first device to feature the innovation, the Vega, was launched in South Korea in November 2011. According to Pantech it enables users to answer incoming calls, activate the MP3 player, play games, and perform other tasks using simple hand gestures, recognised by the phone without the user having to touch the screen.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is looking to extend the capabilities of touchscreen technology, with the OmniTouch project one of its most notable programmes. OmniTouch is the name being given to a technology that turns any surface in the user’s environment into a touch interface. It is a wearable system that enables graphical, interactive, multitouch input onto a range of everyday surfaces.

“We wanted to capitalise on the tremendous surface area the real world provides,” explains Hrvoje Benko, of Microsoft’s natural interaction research group. “The surface area of one hand alone exceeds that of typical smart phones. Tables are an order of magnitude larger than a tablet computer. If we could appropriate these ad hoc surfaces in an on-demand way, we could deliver all of the benefits of mobility while expanding the user’s interactive capability.”

The prototype OmniTouch device is built to be wearable, and combines a laser-based pico-projector with a depth-sensing camera. “This custom camera works on a similar principle to Kinect [the Microsoft xBox motion-based gaming interface], but it is modified to work at short range,” explains Benko.

One technology that could revolutionise services brought to mobiles, but is today just in its infancy, is augmented reality. AR is set to become much more pervasive as researchers are experimenting with new use cases for the technology. But Gus Desbarats suggests that there might be a barrier to uptake in the form of user inertia. Consumers might simply find the idea of a virtual overlay on the real world too “weird”.

Because of that, he says, AR is: “more likely to be used for professional services applications, in the short term; for emergency services for example. It could allow you to be able to look a building and see who’s there, or look at a person and detect their body temperature,” he says. “So many devices and monitors are going to be connected, we’re just going to be swamped with information.”

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