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September 12, 2013

The Shape-Shifting Future of Mobile Phones

When it comes to device design, the future could be less about thinking and more about feeling our way through the world.

Fabian Hemmert is a design researcher at the Berlin University of the Arts.

No human being has ever touched a byte of data. Even though the word “digital” originates from the Latin word for “finger” (“digitus”), digital is all about counting and not about touching. That is a pity, because our hands are magnificent—not only for manipulating things, but also for understanding them. We literally get a grip on things we can touch and play around with.

For a long time, we have been interacting with digital information in a mediated way. We type on a keyboard, and letters and numbers appear on the screen. We move the mouse, and the cursor moves. Now that multitouch screens are mainstream (after a long journey), this mediation has seemingly vanished. We now move, pinch and swipe digital content as if we are touching it. And yet, something is still missing.

Generally, our sense of touch is a two-way street: What we touch, touches us. Sadly, that is rarely the case for digital information. Even with the touch screen, the digital world hides its tactile qualities behind cold glass. It does not live up to the potential of human touch, and the mobile phone's occasional vibration doesn't, either.

Feeling Our Way To The Future

In a recent project, our team at the Design Research Lab at the Berlin University of the Arts investigated this issue through a series of prototypes of mobile phones. These prototypes provide different forms of physical manifestation for digital information. They were built to explore other ways of interacting with mobile phones, relying less on the visual and auditory, but more on feeling. Each of them explores a different style of haptic interaction, leveraging the fine sensory capabilities of the human hand. (I have also given a TED Talk on the subject.)  

What if you could simply grasp the phone in your pocket and feel whether you had missed calls or text messages? 

What if we could navigate through a city without having to stare at a digital map, instead simply feeling which way to go—leaving our eyes free to look about?

Imagine if your device could convey digital information through its thickness, following the simple metaphor of “more” is “thicker”? Think, for example, of feeling where in an e-book you are, by grasping the device with both hands and comparing the thickness of the left and right side.

Haptics: The Next Thing In Mobile?

Weight shift could help us build devices that subtly display information, by shifting the device's center of gravity. For example, a slight “pulling” sensation could be created, similar to a haptic compass, as a way to guide you through a city. Weight shift in mobile phones could also generate power as a side product of walking, similar to the movable weight inside of an automatic watch. Furthermore, it could also balance the phone in your hand, helping you to avoid dropping it.

Haptics is an active area of research. Disney Research, for instance, recently showed a texture-simulating touch screen. And the Media Computing Group at RWTH Aachen has built a table that, seemingly magically, moves around objects on its surface. Such research may give us a brief glimpse into how our body's capacities may be used, for the better, in tomorrow's interaction with the digital world. 

Currently, most mobile phones, eerily, look the same. They consist of little more than a touch screen, and the technical necessities for voice communication. Most differentiation among manufacturers and hardware versions happens on the software level. But this could soon change. Making use of the full potential of the human hand might be the next big (or small) thing in mobile. It may take several generations of phones for such concepts to become a tangible reality, because for manufacturers, revolutions in hardware are much riskier than evolutions in software. It’s a leap of faith, and one day, it might just happen.

And then, we might, finally, be able to get a grip on the digital world. 

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