Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tactile Interaction with Mobile Devices

More and more our digital devices and computers are being equipped with sensors. Physical computing is here at last! Apple's labtops have a motion sensor, that picks up fast movement. If a labtop is being dropped, it will shut down the spinning hard drive instantly to prevent damage to it. The upcoming iPhone is going to be equipped with proximity sensors as well as a accelerometer that detect when the device is being rotated from portrait to landscape.

Beyond the commercial applications there is exiting research being done at the university level. Steven Brewster, Faraz Chohan and Lorna Brown from the University of Glasgow introduced and tested tactile vibrational feedback on touchscreen devices. Typically people would like to use their mobile devices to get work done on subways and busses. Entering data is prone to errors because of shaking vehicles and environmental noise. Auditory feedbacks as tested by Brewster improve usability, but add no benefit in noisy conditions. In this system successful and erroneous typing (double taps or slips) each produce a specific feedback that suggests a "smooth" (success) vs. a "rough"(error) sensation. The study showed significant usability improvement. It increased the amount of data entered by the user and more successful error correction.
More information can be found here.

Technologyreview.com reports today (05-16-07) that the "British Telecom tries to wed Nintendo Wii-style technology to a tablet PC". Tilting and rotating the tablet PC would let the user navigate the computer "Etch-A-Scetch" style. While studying for my Masters (1999) Han Gene Paik and I developed an email application prototype that used tilt sensors to navigate in a similar fashion. Our concept departed from the WIMP interface and suggested the on screen environment to be filled with water. Sorting, filtering and selecting the email objects felt like digging for gold nuggets.


"Liquid Mail" by Han Gene Paik and Dirk J. Platzek

Today these accelerometer sensors are a lot more sophisticated and very tiny. They are known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and are used for example for the iPod Sport Kit , a joined effort by Apple and Nike. Accelerometers are placed into special running shoes. A wireless connection transmits the information to the iPod.

Another exciting idea in the area of physical computing was just introduced at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems 2007, in San Jose, California: "Shoogle", - excitatory multimodal interaction on mobile devices has been developed by John Williamson, Rod Murray-Smith and Stephen Hughes. It also uses accelerometers to pick up user gestures in exchange for vibrotactile and audio feedback. The system produces feedback that - for example - feels like balls of different weights bouncing inside a box. From the sound and vibrotactile sensation a user is then able to distinguish length or urgency of a message. It is not necessary for the user to look at the device, which is great in situations where that is not appropriate. The idea takes advantage "of user's familiarity with the dynamics of processes in the physical world to present information in a natural and non-irritating manner". The highly recommended article can be found here.

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