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Finger moves: A Microsoft research project, called Digits, makes gestural commands mobile.

In a few short years, the technologies found in today’s mobile devices—touch screens, gyroscopes, and voice-control software, to name a few—have radically transformed how we access computers. To glimpse what new ideas might have a similar impact in the next few years, you need only to have walked into the Marriott Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this week. There, researchers from around the world demonstrated new ideas for computer interaction at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Many were focused on taking mobile devices in directions that today feel strange and new but could before long be as normal as swiping the screen of an iPhone or Android device.

“We see new hardware, like devices activated by tongue movement or muscle-flexing, or prototypes that build on technology we already have in our hands, like Kinect, Wii, or the sensors built into existing phones,” said Rob Miller, a professor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the chair of the conference.

One of the most eye-catching, and potentially promising, ideas that was on show makes it possible to perform complex tasks with a flick of the wrist or a snap of the fingers.

The interface, called Digits, created by David Kim, a U.K. researcher at both Microsoft Research and Newcastle University, is worn around the wrist and consists of a motion sensor and an infrared light source and camera. Like a portable version of Microsoft’s motion-sensing device for the Xbox Kinect, Digits can follow arm and finger movements with enough accuracy to replicate them on screen or allow control of a complex computer game. “We envision a smaller device that could be worn like a watch that allows users to communicate with their surroundings and personal computing devices with simple hand gestures,” said Kim (watch a video of Digits in action).

Projects like Kim’s could be a glimpse into the future of mobile computing. After all, prior to the iPhone’s launch, multi-touch interfaces were found only at this kind of event. Researchers believe that mobile computers are still being held back by the limitations of existing control methods, without which they could become even more powerful.

“We have an increasing desire and need to access and work with our computing devices anywhere and everywhere we are,” Kim said. “Productive input and interaction on mobile devices is, however, still challenging due to the trade-offs we have to make regarding a device’s form factor and input capacity.”

The advance of mobile technology has also given researchers easy ways to experiment. Several groups at the conference showed off modifications of existing mobile interfaces designed to give them new capabilities.

Hong Tan, a professor at Purdue University currently working at Microsoft Research Asia, demonstrated a way to add the feel of buttons and other physical controls to a touch screen: vibrating piezoelectric actuators installed on the side of a normal screen generate friction at the point of contact with a finger. The design, dubbed SlickFeel, can make an ordinary sheet of glass feel as if it has physical buttons or even a physical slider with varying levels of resistance. Such haptic feedback could help users find the right control on compact devices like smartphones, or enable the use of a touch screen without looking at it, for example while driving.

Who’s that? A touch screen that recognizes different people’s fingers, developed by Chris Harrison and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University.

In another effort to make more of the touch screen, Chris Harrison of Disney Research presented a way for devices to recognize the swipes and presses of particular people. His interface, a capacitive touch screen with a resistance sensor attached, identifies the unique “impedance profile” of a person’s body through his or her fingers. Users need to hold a finger to the device for few seconds the first time they use it, after which subsequent presses are attributed to them. That could allow apps to do things like track modifications to a document made by different people as a tablet is handed around a table (see a video of the screen). “It’s similar to the technology that is already in smartphones,” said Harrison. “There are lots of implications for gaming—no more split screens—and for collaborative applications.”

The motion and touch sensors in current phones were another target for experimentation. Mayank Goel, a PhD student the University of Washington, and colleagues, modified the software on an Android phone to automatically determine in which hand a person is holding it. The software figures this out by monitoring the angle at which the device is tilted, as revealed by its motion sensor, and the precise shape of pressure on its touch screen. Goel says this can allow a keyboard to automatically adjust to whether a person is using the left or right hand, an adjustment that cut typos by 30 percent in his experiments.

Touchy feely: A malleable interface made by Sean Follmer and colleagues at MIT’s Media Lab.

Other prototypes on display were less obviously connected with the gadgets in your pocket today. One was a malleable interface that can be shaped somewhat the way clay can, developed by a team at MIT’s Media Lab. Sean Follmer, a PhD student in the lab of Professor Hiroshi Ishii, demonstrated several versions, including a translucent bendable touch screen laid flat on a table. This was made from a plastic material containing glass beads and oil, with a projector and a 3-D sensor positioned below. Pinches and twists made to the pliable screen changed the colors displayed on it, which were also shown on a 3-D model of the material on a computer screen nearby.

It’s hard to imagine such an interface in your pocket. However, Desney Tan, a who manages Microsoft’s Computational User Experiences group in Redmond, Washington, and the company’s Human-Computer Interaction group in Beijing, China, believes that being able to choose from multiple modes of interaction will be an important part of the future of computing. “We will stop thinking about mobile devices, and instead focus on mobile computing,” said Tan, who was winner of Technology Review’s 35 Innovators under 35 Award in 2011. “As I see it, no one input or output modality will dominate quite in the same way as visual display and mouse and keyboard has so far.”

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Credits: Microsoft Research, Chris Harrison, Sean Follmer

Tagged: Communications, Web, A123 Systems, gesture interface, gesture recognition

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