Scientists studying new ways to operate handheld gadgets believe they can completely eliminate not just keyboards, but ultra-cool touchscreens on phones and cameras as well.
Patrick Baudisch, a professor in Germany, has been working with students and assistants for a decade on ways to either improve the touchscreen or invent something better.
Baudisch, an expert in human-computer interaction, works at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam.
He believes handheld mobile devices have limitless potential. The way forward, he says, is to enable the phones to carry out the essential functions of a computer.
“We’ve got nearly one billion personal computers in the world and we’ve got 4.5 billion mobile phones,” Baudisch said at the IFA, a consumer electronics trade show held in Berlin last week.
“Combining the keyboard and screen into a single thing has not made mobile devices smaller. It’s made them bigger,” he said, citing the Apple iPad.
Some critics have scoffed at the iPad, saying it is just a phone blown up to the size of a tablet computer. But Baudisch says big gadgets like the iPad have an advantage: users don’t have to deal with small screens.
“Small devices have one major inadequacy: the minuteness of the display,” he said. “Our research agenda is to use technology to get around this inherent minuteness.”
Users cannot see what they are working on while they are touching a screen with their fingers. This leads to errors. Scientists call this the “fat finger problem.”
To overcome this, HPI’s Nanotouch project aims to make users touch the far side of a semitransparent screen.
“We’re using the one surface of the device that has gone completely unused in the past,” Baudisch said. “Our studies show test users can put a finger on a feature just 2.8 millimeters wide with 98 percent accuracy.”
His newest project, Imaginary Interfaces, eliminates the need for a touchscreen altogether. Users wear a kind of brooch with a camera inside it and use their hands to operate the device.
The camera monitors the user’s hands, which are bathed in infrared light, which takes the background out of the picture.
A sensor measures the time it takes for the rays to leave the light source, bounce off the hands and return to the camera.
The system allows the user to guide the device using gestures. Snapping the thumb and forefinger, for instance, denotes a mouse click.
Baudisch says it is “touchscreen interaction without the touchscreen.”
“The imagination of a user is actually a very powerful tool,” he said. “We use imaginary interfaces to make mobile devices far more powerful simply by employing our brainpower.”
The resolution of this “screen” in midair is still fairly low: the camera can only reliably pick up separations of about four centimeters or more.
“But it gets more accurate the closer my fingers get to the fingertips of the other hand,” Baudisch said.
Not everything dreamed up by scientists are commercially viable, however. So what do manufacturers think of inventions like these?
“It sounds very clever, but I’d categorize it at the visionary end,” said Martin Unger, chief executive of Infotronik Touchscreen Systeme, which is based in Austria.
He said he expected software and camera technology to improve enough to bring revolutionary changes to human-machine interaction.
Baudisch, meanwhile, says he does not feel “visionary” is a term of criticism, since he is thinking 10 years ahead. “It won’t be long until the PC reverts to what it was at the beginning: just a glorified typewriter,” he said.