Monday, June 25, 2007

The Real Problem with the iPhone: No Haptics

Last night, my wife had a bunch of friends over to our house to scrapbook, craft, gossip and chat -- basically a slumber party for grown ups. Neither my wife nor any of her friends has the slightest interest in computers or cell phones or gadgets. But they managed to spend at least half an hour dissecting the (as yet unreleased) capabilities of the iPhone. I tell you, Apple is onto something.

That said, I'm holding off on the iPhone. Sure, it's spendy, but – not having seen the real thing yet – I suspect the real problem will be the keyboard. On my Cingular 8525, about the only thing I use the touch screen for is dialing numbers not already in my contact list. And I hate it. I usually get the numbers right, but I can't tell I got the number right. My brain is wired to expect some sort of tactile feedback. And that's with only 12 large buttons, not 30-40. Unless Jobs has something amazing up his sleeve, I'm expecting the touch-screen keyboard will be the real limitation on the iPhone's success.

The only solution I can see is "Haptic" technologies, like that rumored to be on the Samsung SCH-W559 handset, available only in China. (The Economist has a fascinating article on it here; there are pictures of it here.) But the really cool next generation of phones will use microscopic skin stretching devices (otherwise known as "lateral-force-based haptic shape illusions"), rather than vibrating motors, to simulate the feel of a keyboard. (Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre describes the basic idea in a paper available here.) Now that will get me to buy an iPhone.

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