As you all probably know, one of my favorite things to do is to look forward and speculate what the future may bring for us. Will phones become the brains of all of our computing? Will smartphones and tablets become gaming consoles of their own? Of all the different things we might see in the future, there is one thing that interests me more than anything else: smartphone form factors.
Over the past couple years, futuristic smartphone concepts have started to pop up left and right. My favorite thus far is a toss-up between the Flip concept and Galaxy Skin. An offshoot of the Flip concept has already been attempted by Kyocera with the Echo to little success; a design like that will certainly require a little more effort and quite an improvement in battery technology before it ever becomes a viable form factor. And for the Galaxy Skin, Samsung unfortunately debunked any hopes of the device actually being real (as if we ever believed it was).
All hope for a flexible phone is not lost, however. Nokia is on their way to coming up with something similar to the Galaxy Skin. Okay, that's a lie. They're headed in a completely different direction. But CNET gave us a nice little hands-on with the latest from Nokia's labs, a flexible, kinetic device interface.
Unlike the Galaxy Skin, which was a device that could be folded in half or wrapped around your wrist and used as a watch, Nokia's flexible device is less about the actual form factor and more about the interface. Their hopes are to revolutionize how users interact with their device. To scroll through your music or photo albums simply twist the corners of the device in opposite directions. You can also zoom in and out or play and pause music by bending the device toward or away from you. (If you don't follow my explanation, check out the video on CNET.)
All of this is extremely cool and how far they've come in a relatively short time is rather impressive. But is it even plausible?
Let me begin by saying that just watching the video of people twisting and bending a phone had me drooling over my keyboard. The concept of a flexible phone touts several advantages over existing smartphones. With the ability to twist and bend, the phone is less rigid, meaning when it hits the ground, it would likely be less susceptible to damage. Not only that, but having the device in your back pocket when sitting down wouldn't shatter the display.
But I must stress that Nokia's focus isn't necessarily the advantages in durability of a flexible phone, but the advantages of user interaction. They're not trying to reinvent the smartphone, but revolutionize how we use it – instead of pinch to zoom, we might bend to zoom in the future.
Tapani Jokinen, who started working on the technology two years ago for Nokia, explains that there are several possibilities with their new kinetic interface. For instance, operating the device "blind" (or while pocketed) is much easier – slide your hand in your pocket and bend the phone with one hand to ignore a call or pause a song. He also explains that it could be used to snap pictures and it can be used while wearing gloves.
Stephen Shankland of CNET notes that "Jokinen was reluctant to predict whether it might become as widespread as multitouch user interfaces are today," and Jokinen would not comment on whether he thought the technology would ever come to market.
Personally, I find this interface technology a little ... cumbersome. In most cases, it will require the user to use both hands. If people are complaining about phones being too large because they have to readjust their grip on the phone to touch separate parts of the display, rest assured they would complain about having to hold the phone with two hands just to zoom in on a picture. Also, the flex on the phone appears to be rather high tension. The people in the demonstration video were having to really flex the phone to get it to respond, not just a light, quick bend.
Second comes the issue of accuracy. This was also a concern I had with gesture based navigation, which NVIDIA plans to market against touchscreen interfaces. Just based on the video, people seemed to have little control over how far they were zooming or how quickly they were scrolling by bending the phone. I can't imagine it's anywhere near as accurate as simply touching and pinching on the display.
I'm usually open to new ideas and new technology. But similar to Samsung's motion-zooming technique in the latest versions of TouchWiz, this isn't something I can seem myself wanting to use. Simply a flexible phone, though, is a different story. Being able to take a phone the size of ... say a Galaxy Note and fold it in half would be incredible. It's like a flip phone in a sense, without the hinge – no break in the display. Pair this with the Flip concept and you have a true tablet-phone.
Okay ... I'm getting ahead of myself a bit, but I think you get the picture. Bending and twisting through a phone's interface is a novel idea. There's no doubt about that. But just because it's a new idea doesn't make it practical. Given the time to evolve and improve, this could very well be the new navigating system in smartphones. But as it stands, I couldn't possibly see myself always having to hold my phone with two hands. And this would certainly spark a whole new meaning to butt dialing.
Image via CNET