This is the second and final part of my report on user experience trends at the Mobile World Congress. You can read the first section here.
Feeling the changes in user input methods
There was an interesting trend running through many of the new handset releases at MWC: haptics. Slowly but surely the user interaction layer is gaining a new dimension, primarily through vibration feedback. The company behind many of these developments is Immersion Corporation, which has a platform for fine control of the vibration motors embedded within the handset, allowing them to simulate a wide range of responses.
Adoption of this kind of technology is being driven by rising demand for touchscreens. Using Immersion’s platform, manufacturers can map vibration responses to different parts of the screen, overcoming the dead, ‘glassy’ feeling a lot of users complain about when using a touchscreen device for the first time. When you select a button on the screen, the device vibrates in a way that simulates the tactile feedback a user would expect from a physical hardware key.
Terence Warmbier, who leads business development for Immersion in Europe, showed me a demonstration running on a prototype handset, where an iPhone-style scrolling address book was enhanced with small vibrating ‘clicks’ as each entry moved across the screen. There was also a distinctive ‘clunk’ when a swipe of the finger brought the user to the end of the address book.
It is difficult even to find the right language to describe this kind of interaction, as many of the responses combine visual and audible elements with new sensations of feeling that have never been experienced on a handset.
Immersion’s technology, which is strongly patented, has been licensed by Nokia, Samsung, LG and others. The two South Korean manufacturers have been at the forefront of deployments thus far, with LG incorporating it in their popular Viewty. Both Samsung and LG released several products at MWC that incorporate Immersion’s platform. I expect Immersion will also see a significant surge in shipments when Nokia introduces its first touchscreen Series 60 products later in 2008.
Warmbier explained that these first implementations represent only the initial possibilities. Most manufacturers are still using Immersion’s platform to control fairly basic vibration motors. However, the company is working to develop new piezo-electric technology, where tiny vibration mechanisms will be embedded directly beneath the screen, allowing for much greater control over where and how the user experiences the haptic feedback.
Looking even further ahead, Warmbier said Immersion is exploring technology which will allow them to actually dynamically morph the surface of the screen. Within about 5 years it may be possible to have the suface rise and fall to trick the fingers into thinking there is a particular texture or button present.
The ability to simulate positive feedback, even with today’s basic implementation, really does add a new angle to the user experience. It also provides UI designers which more flexibility, allowing them to capitalise on the design advantage of large touchscreen panels (e.g. being able to present fully customised interaction layers for specific applications within the same handset), while still providing the tactile experience users are accustomed to with hardware keypads.
I spoke about Immersion in my report on last year’s Mobile World Congress and it is impressive to see the progress they have made in 12 months, signing licensing deals with manufacturers that represent about 65% of the world’s handset shipments and increasing the range of commercial products in the marketplace powered by their technology.
Hands on with the Couple-IT concept design
Regular MEX readers may recall the article two weeks ago by Gus Desbarats, chairman of Alloy, in which he unveiled the Couple-IT concept design for the first time. With its extensive use of touchscreen panels across the mobile handset and web tablet components, it is exactly the kind of product which would benefit from Immersion’s haptics technology.
Desbarats and Alloy were exhibiting the Couple-IT in the UK Trade & Industry pavillion at MWC (as a point of interest, the UK sent more exhibitors to MWC this year than any other country, emphasising the rich diversity of the British mobile technology industry). According to Gus, it had received strong interest in the first couple of days. You can see the pictures here, but I was able to see the hardware models themselves at MWC and was impressed with the sleekness of the design.
The whole idea behind Couple-IT is for manufacturers and operators to recognise that, for some users, the optimum experience simply can’t be delivered in a single device. Their requirements are such that two devices are needed to ensure they can access all of the services they want to consume in the mobile environment, one geared primarily towards voice and the other offering a full browsing and media experience.
Crucial to this idea is synchronisation of data between the two components, ensuring the user never needs to think about whether the video they want to watch is stored on the right handset or if their contacts are synchronised – all of these processes take place in the background.
It is a usage scenario which I believe is going to see increasing demand. The growing segment of small web devices, from the iPod Touch to the Nokia N810, provides evidence of how attractive this form factor can be. However, I am yet to see a company which has effectively linked data between two devices or marketed them as part of the same package, with consistent design and experience. Palm’s aborted Foleo may have come close, but has now been consigned to history. Alloy’s Couple-IT should be a wake-up call for the industry to explore the potential of this market segment.
I’m currently preparing another report which looks at the theory behind ubiquitous data availability and the role of the synchronisation layer. I’ll be publishing it in the MEX newsletter shortly and would welcome a debate about the nature and importance of this crucial layer in the experience architecture.
How much value can you get for your money?
Staying with the touchscreen theme, I also met with Simon Gregory, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Fly Mobile. Fly is a company which has interested me for some time for the simple reason that they seem to be producing well-specified handsets at a pricepoint which is hard to believe. For instance, you can buy a Fly SLT100 in the UK for GBP 49 on Pre-Pay (i.e. no contract), including 240 x 320 touchscreen, 2 megapixel camera, MP3 player and web browser.
There are numerous manufacturers which claim to compete on price with the major players, but uniquely Fly also seems commited to producing stylish devices with genuine consumer appeal. Gregory also showed me a new ‘candybar’ design Fly is producing, which was as slim as anything I have seen from Motorola and Samsung, and beautifully finished in a variety of different metals and shiny plastics. While not quite my taste, it will clearly have popular appeal for younger customers wanting an overtly stylish handset at a bargain price.
Fly’s largest markets are Russia, the former CIS states and India, where booming demand for handsets and the lack of handset subsidies has increased the appeal of its low cost, high value products. The company is now moving aggressively into the UK, where you can buy Fly products from retailers like Argos and operators like Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.
Gregory shared some interesting observations about the usage habits in this market segment. He believes the popular notion of younger pre-pay customers using their handset for nothing but voice and text is totally false. Fly’s research indicates that customers typically use all of the features on their handsets, often finding novel ways of employing the technology to achieve results that Fly hadn’t even envisaged. One example he cited was users who record segments of TV programmes simply by holding their handset up to the television screen. These clips are then shared with their friends and family.
Fly’s formula is built around several factors. It does its industrial design in-house at local studios in the UK, Russia, India and Korea and has its own software platform, which is shared across numerous handset models. Manufacturing is based in Korea. The company also looks to refresh its product portfolio on an almost quarterly basis, continually iterating new handsets which improve slightly on the existing models and take advantage of the latest component developments to further enhance the specification or reduce prices.
Fly also avoids supplying directly for contract deals. With handset subsidies in the UK, most phones on a contract are reduced to zero upfront cost, regardless of whether they would normally retail for GBP 300 or GBP 100. In that sort of environment, it is very difficult for a manufacturer focused on value to shine, so Gregory prefers to target the pre-pay segment, where the customer can make a more transparent value decision.
Hall 7 in Barcelona was home to the mobile content companies and arguably the liveliest place to be. A special mention should be made for Yahoo which, in addition to making some very prescient announcements about the launch of its presence-enabled contact list technology (the subject of one of our 2008 MEX Manifesto statements), also had the most engaging stand. Guests were encouraged to explore a series of demo pods showing Yahoo’s mobile services by the cunning use of candy dispensers, with each demo station featuring a different type of candy. Tired mobile executives could be seen throughout the day, pretending to be interested in Yahoo’s technology while filling their bags with sweets. Needless to say, it was one of the busiest places at MWC!
The solution for mobile video in India?
Also in Hall 7 was SPICE, an Indian company with operations spanning handset design, content production and networks. India, of course, is enjoying rampant subscriber growth, with literally millions of net additions each month.
The company attracted a certain amount of attention by announcing a bizarre handset featuring an integrated optical disk drive, allowing users to watch DVD quality films on their mobile phone. I was given a demonstration by Amit Saxena, who manages product development at SPICE, and Wendy Volan, Vice President of Marketing at Vmedia Research, the company which developed the optical disk format.
It was easy to see the strange looks the product was attracting, with many visitors questioning the need for 1 Gb optical disks when you can buy tiny microSD cards capable of storing 8 Gb. However, sometimes it is worth remembering the importance of locale in the user experience. Saxena and Volan explained that the ultra low-cost of the Vmedia disks would play well in the value-focused Indian market.
India’s Bollywood industry is also the largest national film business in the world, with television and video an obsession for many on the sub-Continent. If mobile video is going to succeed anywhere, India is a prime candidate.
Again, local factors will play a significant role in the potential success of this product. Sideloading content on a pre-formatted disk is likely to be a much more appealing method where there is low penetration of high speed internet or PCs to act as a transfer mechanism.
I suspect the SPICE handset will be confined to a very small niche, but it is a good example of how varied market needs can be, even in the globablised handset industry. We will be discussing the huge variations in user experience requirements in emerging markets at the MEX conference in London on 27th and 28th May 2008. It is one of our 10 Manifesto topics.
Making media on mobile
I’d like to give a final mention for the best demonstration I saw at MWC this year: TrakAx, a mobile content production tool for Windows Mobile devices.
Unfortunately the vast majority of my time at MWC is spent in back-to-back meetings, but I always try to find an hour or so to walk the floors in search of smaller companies doing innovative things in mobile. TrakAx caught my eye this year, simply because its tiny stand was so colourful.
The software allows users to mix photos, videos and audio into a multimedia presentation. There is nothing particular revolutionary about this – most manufacturers include some kind of ‘VideoDJ’ software on high-end handsets these days, but the TrakAx implementation was particularly useable.
Manipulating media on a mobile device is a very difficult thing to do. The constraints of small screens, unsuitable input methods and processing power typically conspire to make life very unpleasant for the user. However, TrakAx have used their internal UI design teams to develop an interface which works across touchscreen and key-driven devices.
I believe this kind of application is going to play a bigger and bigger role in the user experience (we’ll be running a session all about how content itself is becoming the new user interface at the MEX conference this year).
The balance of media creation activities is increasingly tipping away from PCs and slanting towards mobile devices. More and more people are relying on their phone to capture photos, videos, location information and music. Until recently, mobile devices have been limited to simply consuming or storing this kind of content, but the advent of inexpensive, haptic-enhanced touchscreens, new UI technologies and the ability to upload direct to social networking services is going to make media creation on a mobile device a much more mainstream activity.
If you have a Windows Mobile device, you can download a free demo from the TrakAx site.
This is the second and final part of my report on user experience trends at the Mobile World Congress. You can read the first section here.