Smartphones have become an integral part of people’s lives these days, and the constant increase in their sales clearly demonstrates that, but it appears that these devices have yet to reach their full potential, at least when it comes to the experience they can deliver to users.
Over the past several years, software makers out there have been working hard on building new experience for smartphone users, which has resulted not only in an increased competition on the mobile space, but also in a variety of new features and capabilities available for end users.
What’s yet to be seen, however, is a platform that could mark a radical shift from the standard user-handset interaction that today’s smartphone UIs have to offer, and which would completely change the way people see smartphone usage today.
Amazon revealed such an experience last month, when it announced its Amazon Fire Phone, based on a 3D interface loaded on top of Android, yet it seems that there is room for much more than what that device can deliver, and that Microsoft could be the one to prove that.
The 3D UI loaded on top of Amazon Fire takes advantage of four infrared cameras placed on the front of the device in all four corners, and is also based on a head-tracking system called Dynamic Perspective.
Basically, it would enable users to interact with the phone through head gestures, swipes, and the like, and the image visible on the screen would also change in accordance with the device’s position toward user’s head.
The only issue with this approach, however, appears to be the fact that the 3D interactions with the device are limited to what the gestures that the aforementioned front cameras can track, thus still requiring the user to look at the phone in order to perform specific actions.
However, Redmond-based Microsoft appears set to take this one step further, by implementing upcoming devices with gestures that would go beyond the touchscreen or the use of the front camera, thus making phone interaction completely different when compared to what platforms have to offer today.
To be more precise, Microsoft is rumored to be working on two new Windows Phone devices that should sport a brand-new user interface called 3D Touch, and which will allow users to interact with their smartphones in more ways than through simple gestures on the touchscreen.
One of said phones could be the long-rumored Nokia McLaren, which might hit shelves with a 5.2-inch touchscreen display capable of delivering a Quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) resolution, 64GB of internal memory, and a 20-megapixel camera on the back.
The second one should feature a 6-inch touchscreen display, most probably meant to replace the Nokia Lumia 1520 as the next large flagship handset in the company’s lineup.
Said 3D Touch interface should be the main differentiator between entry- and mid-range Lumia phones and those aiming at the high-end of the market, while also being supposed to better position Windows Phone against Android and iOS in the top segment.
Windows Phone to allow interaction beyond the touchscreen
As for what 3D Touch would have to offer, it all starts with MixView, a feature that would allow Start Screen tiles to display additional functions / commands when the user hovers their finger over them. Apparently, users will be able to press these mini tiles normally, thus performing various tasks faster than before.
However, rumor has it that Microsoft is actually looking to make the new gesture and touch interactions available in more areas than just the screen, turning the handset as a whole in a giant sensitive unit. Hardware that would enable such functionality is said to have been already developed.
Nokia McLaren should include the new hardware, with sensors that will allow it to understand how it is held, so that users could answer an incoming call by putting the phone to their ear, or to dismiss notifications by swiping above the screen.
The tight relation between the new hardware and software might even make it possible for the complete removal of buttons from a device. A touch-sensitive area that would recognize a hand grip would replace the power button, for example.
While this is just a rumor for the time being, some more solid info on Microsoft’s possible plans for the future of Windows Phone has emerged recently courtesy of a patent filling that describes a brand-new feature for the platform, called Cloud.
Apparently, it is not related to the current idea of cloud computing but is meant to provide users with easier access to applications, contacts and services that they use the most.
The idea behind this new feature is that the tiles of applications that are used most often would move up on the display and would become larger, thus being easier to spot and access.
Position and size of tiles will depend on multiple factors
Furthermore, the position of a tile on the screen, along with its size would also be affected by the importance of that app in user’s activity, and could also be affected by the time of day, location, and the context in which said app is being used.
Dynamic Live Tiles are also described in the patent filing. They would display info on whether a contact is available or is in a meeting and cannot be called. The tile of a website could display info on the traffic on a specific time of day, when said user usually accesses it.
All in all, what I understand from this patent filing is that Microsoft is considering new ways to make Windows Phone even more personal, thus being capable of providing users with info they need when they need it.
Clearly, it also means that the phone will have to learn more info on the user than some might consider it comfortable, but I’m sure that many will be more interested in how practical the implementation of such functionality is rather than be annoyed by what could be considered privacy intrusion.
Cortana, the personal digital assistant included in Windows Phone 8.1, has already started to show a behavior that could very well lead to what said patent filing describes.
It can access calendar appointments and inform users on meetings, anniversaries and the like, while also keeping track of user’s location, flights, work and sleep hours, favorite contacts, and many more.
Should these functions be expanded to the entire operating system, and should upcoming smartphones include the aforementioned “sensitive” hardware, users will be holding in their hands devices that will be more like an extension of their personalities than simple tools.
Thus, interaction with new Windows Phone handsets will truly go beyond the screen, even beyond the hardware inside the phone, making devices a much more important aspect of users’ lives than they currently are.
And with Microsoft struggling to grab more market share on the smartphone market, it would make sense for it to try to revolutionize its mobile OS so as to make it truly stand out from the crowd. The aforementioned 3D Touch UI might be just the way to do it.
I’ve been long looking for a worthy Windows Phone handset to make the switch to this platform, and it appears that Nokia McLaren, most probably the first Lumia to feature the 3D Touch interface, could be the phone I’ve been waiting for.