Reaching out for touch-screens

Strategy Analytics has released a report predicting 40 percent of handsets sold in 2012 will incorporate touch-screen technology. The firm believes the tipping point will occur at the end of 2007, when it expects the price of touch-screens to fall from the current level of around USD 5 – 10 to under USD 3. Strategy Analytics also makes the observation that this growth will need to be supported by the emergence of a new generation of applications to take advantage of the unique possibilites offered by a touch-screen interface.

We looked at some of these applications in previous MEX articles, including ‘Did Palm get it right?‘ and it was also discussed in detail during our recent MEX conference session entitled ‘Intra-device and multiple interface challenges’ (buy the MEX conference report here).

Touch-screen handsets currently account for about 2 percent of the worldwide market. They are confined primarily to high end business devices and some localised units for Asian markets where the alphabets are more suited to pen input.

The 2012 timescale for 40 percent pentration seems optimistic, but there is definitely the potential for strong growth. The additional flexibility of a touch-screen opens up some exciting new possibilities, particularly for manipulating user-generated content such as video and audio. According to separate research from M:Metrics published in Mobile Entertainment Magazine, about 10 percent of the UK market is already creating and distributing mobile content. A touch-screen promises much greater flexibility, allowing users more creativity and therefore increasing the attraction of these kind of services.

However, the concept of a ‘touch-screen’ as it exists today can be a little misleading when thinking about the future of this market. The term immediately conjures up images of clunky Windows Mobile Pocket PC devices or Palm OS smartphones. The growth is likely to come in rather different areas and primarily from handsets which have dual or multiple interfaces. An early example is Sony Ericsson’s ‘P’ series devices, which combine standard nine-key input with a touch-screen that remains inactive when the flip is closed. Sony Ericsson’s is continuing this dual input theme with the M600 and W950.

Basic user experience requirements will dictate the necessity of tactile buttons alongside any touch-screen interface. Even with technology such as Immersion Corporation’s haptics, which can simulate feedback when a virtual button is pressed on the screen, there will still be a requirement for hardware keys. One of the biggest problems is keeping the screen clean – no amount of haptics or software innovation can get around the fact that screens become smudged, greasy and damaged when touched.

This dilemna is actually a good example of a recurring problem with the lack of customer focus in mobile design. From the industry’s viewpoint, we may be reaching a point when the economics and technology of touch-screens are suitable for the mass-market. However, from the customer perspective, the basic human problems of dirty hands, imprecise finger presses and lost styli remain.

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    For touch screen phones to reach 40% might require humans to grow a third arm and hand 😉 as one of the biggest problems in usability for touchscreen phones is that it requires two hands — one for the phone, one for the stylus. Phone users typically don’t like to use both hands on their phone. Most typing is thumb-typing, whether when dialing or texting. Single-hand use of touch screen (as when dialing on a SE P800/900) is limited to keyboard-like interaction. Anything more complex requires to use a stylus because of the poor finger-to-touchscreen accuracy ratio. The case that you have been making about BOM reduction doesn’t stand: why add even a cent to the cost of a phone if the only convenient usage can be achieved without this added cost?

    In addition, for more complex application such as content browsing and viewing (ie navigation, full web browsing, playlist navigation, etc.), one-hand pardigms are starting to appear that are far more usable than touchscreens. One such breakthrough paradigm is that provided by Realeyes3D’s Motion Cortex. It uses the camera as a motion sensor (using patented image processing technology) to “motionize” relevant applications on the phone. As phones can be moved with the same hand that thumb-types, wrist motion is a perfect complement to the finger in single-hand ergonomy and user experiences. Other alternatives are MEMS-based accelerometers which offer greater latitude (3D movement) but significantly add to the BOM and cannot be implemented in existing phone designs.


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