Making sense of mobile sensors

I recently had the chance to try out the iPhone via a friend whose spouse brought one back from the States. As handsets go, I find the iPhone a bit lacking in a few areas, most of which you've probably already heard - no 3G, no stereo Bluetooth, no MMS, etc. But the fabled touch-screen is a work of art.

Maybe it's because my expectations were tempered by healthy skepticism, but it's easily the most intuitive interface I've ever encountered on a mobile device. It took me about two minutes to master, after which the iPhone became ludicrously easy to navigate. The most obvious weakness: touch-screens are crap at SMS - unless you've got fingertips as narrow as a sharpened No. 2 pencil, or unless you normally text-type really slow.

On the other hand, Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal says that this is a simple matter of getting used to the interface, so this may be a non-issue.

No wonder touch-screens are the new sexy in the mobile phone set. But for my money, there's a less celebrated aspect of all this that could make mobile interfaces even more interesting in the next few years: sensor technology.

Take the accelerometer - the sensor device inside the iPhone that can tell when you're holding it vertically or horizontally, and change the screen from portrait to landscape mode accordingly. It's also the technology that lets the Nike + iPod combo measure your running pace and distance. And yes, it's also the technology that makes the Nintendo Wii possible.

In layman's terms, an accelerometer measures a specific external force. Put more simply, it measures its own movement. The technology has been around for decades, but it's only been in recent times that it's found its way into consumer electronics, to include mobile phones.

The Nokia 5500 sports phone uses a 3D accelerometer for step counting, as well as a 'tap gesture' function that lets you change music tracks by tapping the phone while it's in your pocket. Owners of a Sony Ericsson W910i Walkman phone can change tracks just by giving it a good shake.

A whole new world

Technically, this is hardly news - Samsung launched a handset almost three years ago with '3D recognition movement' that meant you could change tracks, end calls and delete spam with a flick of the wrist. You could even dial a number by using the phone to draw the numerals in the air. Around the same time, Sharp released a handset that was a pre-cursor of the Wii, allowing users to practice their virtual golf swing.

The reason only a handful of phones have this technology today is primarily a cost issue. Accelerometers are comparatively expensive components, and manufacturers haven't been willing to shell out for them unless there was a clear benefit in terms of functionality that end-users would find useful, or at least fun. High-profile successes like the iPhone and the Wii - two devices, you'll notice, that were made outside of the mobile industry - may prove to be the tipping point handset makers have been seeking.

Accelerometer tech opens up a whole new area of potential mobile apps.

 

Zoom out to a broader view and you've got other sensor technologies that could give your phone the ability to monitor your pulse, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Or, we could see apps like the prototype handset NTT DoCoMo recently showed off at the CEATAC consumer electronics show in Tokyo. Expanding on the idea of using contactless tech like NFC and FeliCa to turn the phone into a payment device, this handset uses sensor technology from Kaiser Technology that transmits signals through your body. Which means instead of passing your handset over the card reader as you pass through the train station turnstile, you could just use your finger while the phone stays in your pocket. DoCoMo says the same tech could be used to gain access to your locked office building by transmitting your ID code through your feet to floor sensors.

Let's see Apple top that.

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