Imaginary Phones Get Real


by Tim Moran

The Hasso Plattner Institute, in Potsdam, Germany, is home to the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. Within the lab is the "Imaginary Interfaces" project, which involves research into "screen-less devices that allow users to perform spatial interaction with empty hands and without visual feedback." All such feedback, they say, takes place in the user's imagination.

Under the auspices of this project is the research being done by Sean Gustafson, Christian Holz, and Patrick Baudisch on the "imaginary phone."

The imaginary phone is pretty much what you'd think it would be. Actually, I have no idea what you think it would be, so let me explain.

The research team's imaginary phone is said to allow you to control a mobile device without actually taking it out of your pocket. Instead, you use the palm of your hand to be the face of your phone, and you mimic the interaction with the phone by pressing your hand. This action is tracked by a wearable depth camera, which sends the input events to the actual physical device. So, by mimicking the layout of the physical device on you palm, you can operate the device based on what they call "spatial memory" that's been built up while you've been using the physical device.

In other words, something like this:

Spatial memory.jpg

The idea is based on the notion that, through repetitive use, people get to know their smartphones and can easily recreate the touch patterns on their hand--especially the simple, everyday functions such as swiping on, putting in the password, or tapping the "phone" button. It's not all in your imagination, of course. To actually answer or make a call you would still need the physical device. But it would certainly be possible to access apps and forward calls to voicemail with the imaginary version.

Frankly, I am not ready for this at all. I can barely make the right moves on the touchscreen in reality, much less imaginarily.

I'm sure this would be great for tweens and teens and other power users; of course, getting a new device could make things a little tricky, but youth adapts pretty quickly.

I've no doubt that, someday, this kind of technology will be out of the labs and into the shops and we'll think nothing of seeing someone tap, tap, tapping away at their palm and talking into their Bluetooth mic. It just won't be me. However, Gustafson is now working out how a TV remote control could be replaced by an imaginary one--now there's something I think I can manage.