British Telecom (BT) is working on a plan to eliminate the keyboard and mouse, and use accelerometers with tablet PCs instead.
The pilot project enables a user to scroll through menus or applications simply by tilting or rotating the tablet PC. The system starts with a specially designed adapter containing tiny accelerometers, which measure acceleration. The adapter plugs into any tablet PC via a USB cable. When a user moves the PC, the sensors detect the motion. Special software then interprets the PC’s movements and translates them onto the computer screen.
“What we want to create is a kind of broadband Etch A Sketch,” says BT researcher David Chatting, who wrote the applications for the prototype.
The trick, he says, is getting people sensitized to how moving the PC affects what happens on the computer. “One of my initial applications entails using the PC to manipulate a marble on the screen. I want to demonstrate to the user that how they’re holding the device affects what’s happening–that they have an almost physical connection to the content on the screen.”
For now, Chatting’s applications are simple. A user moves the machine left or right to toggle between a few menu choices on-screen, and then pulls the machine forward to select a menu item. “We aren’t trying to duplicate all [of] Windows Vista or Mac OSX,” Chatting says.
But he is convinced that software could be further adapted so that a person could, say, turn the pages of a virtual book just by tilting the machine, or even move a cursor around a Web page and then click on a link just by giving the machine a light shake.
“The technology has obvious implications for those who are disabled or elderly and [have] difficulty using a fiddly laptop keyboard or mouse,” says Adam Oliver, head of BT’s Age and Disability Research Program, of which BT Balance is a part. “We wanted to create an interface that was simple and intuitive. Standard ways of controlling PC applications can be too complicated.”
Accelerometers are used in a wide range of devices. In the Nintendo Wii hand controller, they provide the raw data from your body’s movements that end up as on-screen actions. They also help stabilize the image on your camcorder. Typically, these accelerometers are so small that they fit into a class of devices known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).
BT is hardly the first company to put a MEMS accelerometer into portable electronic equipment. Nike and Apple, for example, have teamed up on a product called the iPod Sport Kit. An accelerometer placed in a special pair of Nike running shoes measures workout data, then wirelessly transmits the information to an iPod Nano.