Part II: Making Mobile A 'No-brainer'
By Peggy Anne Salz, Wed Mar 17 05:00:00 GMT 2004

If users can't use their mobile phones, they won't access data services. The series ends its look at technologies in the pipeline that may help the industry solve this dilemma.

The Write Thing

Wacom Components Europe Ltd., a subsidiary of the Japan-based number one key supplier of interface technology for the Microsoft Tablet PC, sees a clear opportunity to bring its patented technology to the mobile space.

Wacom's solution, known as "penabled" technology, is a pen-based system - quite similar to the one featured in mobile devices and PDAs - but with a twist. A sensor placed under the display screen picks out the position of the stylus pen, which can "hover" a maximum of 14mm from the display, enabling for a mouse-like interface. In practice, this means users can also interface with the device without necessarily touching the stylus to the screen.

What's more, the increased accuracy of the stylus offers improvements on existing resistive touch systems and enables application zooming. Neil Ferguson, a Wacom manager who walked me through the technology during 3GSM, showed how the technology allows users to see what icons on the screen mean by simply hovering the pen over them. Ferguson also demonstrated a series of navigation and mapping applications - showing that the technology can be the basis for more user-friendly interaction with location-based services. To date Wacom's technology has been designed into the new release OQO's pocketsize computer device.

Wacom's penabled solution is also sensitive to pressure - and knows the difference between the natural flow of writing and the erratic scratches of a counterfeiter. For this reason, the company is also positioning its solution to become a de facto standard for creating legally binding digital biometric signatures for m-commerce. To this end the company is gearing up to offer mobile handset manufacturers and operators a solution for capturing and automatically authenticating biometric signatures.

More Than A Feeling

Communication is a two-way street. It's important for companies to improve how users input data into their phones - but it would also add richness to the experience if the phone had a kind of tactile feedback channel to the user.

Imagine accessing a location-based service and having your phone "tell" you precisely when to turn left, right - or when you've arrived. Or imagine receiving a text message from a loved one via a phone that could effectively act out the emotions.

The touch-sense vibration technology invented by Immersion Corporation in the US makes these scenarios possible. In fact, the company just landed a milestone, multi-year licensing deal with Samsung to bring new capabilities for games, messaging and alerts to mobile phones.

Most phones vibrate with a single force and speed - much like a pager. Immersion's technology controls the standard mobile phone pager motor and can increase its fidelity by 100 times or more. As a result, each vibration's strength, frequency, duration, rhythm and dynamics can be controlled to allow endless variations of sensation.

Jeff Eid, Immersion Vice President, Business Development Computing and Consumer Group, points out that Immersion can - literally -- change how users feel about their phone. "Vibration sensations can bring music to life- and make it a more enjoyable experience," he says. Tactile feedback would also make a virtual pet more realistic (Yes, it certainly would purr like a kitten.)

Eid also envisions that touch could enhance location-based advertising, streaming video and MP3 and, above all, games. (Immersion has a long track record in this market; it appeared in the first force feedback joysticks for PC games, and is now in products of over 15 PC and console gaming peripheral manufacturers.) "Gamers could roam the area and use the mobile gaming services to find or avoid players. Touch feedback, rather than sight, lets gamers take in information and key an eye on their surroundings."

It's no secret that mobile operators (and their investors) are jittery about the future of data services. And it's a no-brainer that users want to get to the phone features they want-- and get the most of their phones. Now it's up to the vendors to create the intuitive and simple interfaces that will deliver the users a better user experience - and the industry better business results.