New Sensors, 3-D Graphics Poised to Improve Touchscreen Smartphones
Touchscreens smartphones have only become mainstream within the last three years or so since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, but they're already in urgent need of an upgrade, according to a company that was involved in their invention.
In many ways, touchscreen phones make the mobile experience more complicated, not less, argues Andrew Hsu, Technology Strategist for Synaptics. Synaptics is a human interface company whose engineers produced the first touchpads and capacitive touchscreens, which are today found in millions of devices around the world, including computers, music players, printers, cameras and mobile phones.
While Hsu appreciates the computing capabilities smartphones offer, he says we've lost the basic functionality of the no frills free phone. Hsu maintains consumers shouldn't have to give up that functionality when they move into a more sophisticated handset.
"We recognize that smartphones let people access a lot of data on a very small device, but what you give up for it, is [the ability to] use your device in a mobile setting," said Hsu, who argues that most people use their touchscreen phones with one hand while using their hand for other tasks.
"Whether they want to or not, people are forced to use their phone using one hand," Hsu said. "There have been all sorts of coping strategies with these touchscreen phones, but fundamentally the touchscreen needs to be supplemented with additional sensing technologies."
((ImgTag Touchscreens)) can lead to problems for users. Synaptics identified three key user challenges: regaining one-handed operation, reducing cognitive load ― the amount of attention needed for the simplest navigation task ― and making operations more intuitive to the user. Hsu calls this last problem "discoverability."
"With hardware based user controls it was pretty obvious. If you didn't touch the button, nothing happened and if you touched it, something happened. But with a touchscreen, you never really know," Hsu said.
He used his Nexus One smartphone as an example. "Like if you touch the battery icon, I might expect to get a little more information, but nothing happens. Or what about touching the clock icon? Maybe something should happen with that, but nothing does," Hsu said. The user may not know where to touch or even what to touch.
"I think that's why older people are spooked out by touchscreens, because there's this fear that you're doing something wrong," Hsu said. "Like if I touch here maybe that will dial 911 or shut down the machine or some other unintended consequence."
3 essential add-ons
Synaptic has made it its goal to "making mobile devices mobile again." The company has designed a concept phone called the Fuse that incorporates multiple sensors, a 3-D interface and a faster processor to improve the touchscreen experience.
Side sensors were built into the Fuse prototype along with the back sensor. The side sensors allow scrolling by squeezing the phone. A light squeeze scrolls down the display and a harder squeeze scrolls through icons. The back sensor allows a user to dial a number from the back without covering the display, but it takes some practice to master.
A 3-D graphic subsystem provided more information to users without overwhelming them. "3-D is a more natural way for people to view things and reduces the clutter to view that information," Hsu said.
3-D icons spin, so users can get more information by rotating icons with their fingers, eliminating the need to open new pages.
Hsu said a powerful processor is important in new phone designs. According to Hsu, touchscreens often take the blame for phones running slowly.
"The sensor could be reporting information instantaneously, but if you touch something and nothing happens, you think the touch hardware is broken but in fact it's the processor," Hsu said.
Currently, Texas Instruments' 3630 720 megahertz processor is just enough to run the Fuse 3-D graphics, but Hsu said to expect more powerful processors later this year like the Texas Instruments' OMAP 4 1+ gigahertz processors, which will double processing power.
Some of the features of the Fuse phone have been incorporated into some new phones, like the Motorola Backflip with its back sensor and Microsoft's Kin One and Two that use Synaptic's touchscreen technology.
Hsu was confident touchscreen improvements will continue to be adopted across the mobile landscape. "It is good interface design that will finally convince many, including my mother, to buy into the fact that touchscreens can make devices better."