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Cell phone, PDA et cetera: A thumb is not enough

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The 11th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services MobileHCI ended last Friday. For four days, about 300 researchers, software developers and hardware designers presented and discussed the latest research results and ideas for the use of small mobile devices. Novel concepts for the user interfaces of smartphones and PDAs were one of the main themes of the conference, which had been organized jointly by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology and Siegen University.

Usability of mobile devices and services has been the core topic of the MobileHCI series of conferences - a fast-moving target given the rapid development of the technology and its proliferating use. In just over a decade, hardly portable cell phones evolved into sleek all-purpose gadgets that can play music and videos, shoot photos and video clips, assist automobile and pedestrian navigation and keep their users constantly in touch with colleagues, friends and online services.

"The users are mobile, moving around, focusing on other tasks, and mostly have just one hand free for using the gadgets, explains Prof. Reinhard Oppermann, department head at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT and this year's General Conference Chair of MobileHCI. "Besides phone calls, texting and mobile Internet access are the most important uses of smartphones. Therefore, there were a lot of presentations on faster, more convenient mobile text input."

As one example, researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology presented a Two-Thumb-Chording approach where a character is produced by pressing several keys at once like playing a chord. It takes some time and effort to master, but then text input is clearly faster. Other research investigates the use of different amounts of pressure with virtual keyboards, e.g. pressing a little harder to type a capital letter.

Another novel approach is the Dual Interface smartphone. It has a second touch pad on the back, so the user can combine the thumb on the front and the index finger on the back for efficient navigation. Two researchers from Germany presented HoverFlow, a contact-free gesture recognition for the iPhone. It uses infrared sensors to measure the distance of a hand from the device. Thus an extended interaction space is created around the device that can be controlled by gestures like waving your hand in front of the display or moving your hand closer to or away from the machine.

"In all, 176 papers and presentations were submitted from all over the world, of which some 20 percent were accepted by the Program Committee", Prof. Volker Wulf, Siegen University, one of this year's Conference Program Chairs, said in his report.

MobileHCI 2009 was not just about smartphones, though. Mobile devices built into your clothing or sports equipment will soon be commonplace. In their paper on Tacticycle, researchers from Great Britain discussed the design of interactive applications for cyclists, e.g. vibrating bar ends that indicate which way to turn. The authors also presented a set of specialized guidelines for the design of interactive applications for cyclists, which take special requirements like driving safety and limited capabilities for interaction during physical strain.

In 2009, MobileHCI was organized by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT and by Siegen University, in cooperation with ACM SIGCHI and ACM SIGMOBILE. Additional support for MobileHCI 2009 was provided by B-IT Research School and the UMIC Cluster on Mobile Communications of RWTH Aachen University.

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