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Help for Handhelds

New ‘zoom’ interfaces will make it easier to navigate through information on tiny screens.

The common desktop interface of personal computing-clicking links, file names, and tabs to navigate everything from the Web to Microsoft Word-works fine on your PC but not on the tiny screens of handheld devices, which rely on cumbersome adaptations like drop-down menus and scrolling. Now, the first interface that completely replaces these methods with the simpler method of zooming-alternating levels of magnification-is headed to the handheld market.

Users initially see a bird’s-eye view of icons or text blocks representing basic information categories. They click to get a closer view and more information and pan between categories, without needing tools like the “back” button or drop-down menus, says Maximilian Riesenhuber, chief science officer of GeoPhoenix of Cambridge, MA, which is bringing the product, called Zoominator, to market this summer. The GeoPhoenix move follows a zooming trend. Already familiar in common tools like Web-based maps, zooming is showing up in more applications. For example, Windsor Interfaces of University Park, MD, a startup founded by University of Maryland computer scientist Ben Bederson, plans to market a photo browser that allows users to pan across, and zoom in on, hundreds of thumbnail images, even if they are located in different folders. As a result, users won’t have to remember individual photos’ names; they will be able to identify them quickly by looking at their thumbnails.

As more people use handhelds or tablet PCs instead of laptops-and styluses instead of keyboards-zooming will speed into the marketplace, says Ken Perlin, a computer scientist at New York University. “Zooming interfaces are physical and direct,” he says. Riesenhuber says his goal is not only to present information in an intuitive way, but “most importantly, that you can access it from any kind of device.” Long term, that might make it zoom to deskbound PCs, too.

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