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May 28, 2007

HTC Announcement: Trouble Ahead?

One of the great Internet-related pastimes is making out-of-blue predictions of what some upcoming product will be. I’m guilty of this armchair fortune-telling too. Engadget’s reporting that HTC is holding a press event on June 5th, and so I’m gonna take a stab at what the device is:
I’m guessing it’ll be a hockey-puck-shaped device that uses an accelerometer to detect what direction it’s facing. I bet it’ll be something that you spin to select menu items.
Why do I think that’s the case? The invitation posted in the article certainly suggests that. But really, the better question is, why has it taken so long for acceleration-based handheld navigation to come about?
It’s not because the technology was lacking – digital accelerometers have been around for at least ten years, and I remember a UIST paper by Jun Rekimoto from 1996 that covered just that sort of interaction.
Could it be cost? Not likely I think. At least seven or eight years ago, I remember coming across Till Harbaum’s guide to adding a tilt sensor to a PalmPilot. I built one, and it cost me a just a couple of bucks. I used it to try to experiment with Rekimoto’s ideas back then.
So, why haven’t we seen more devices that exploit accelerometers for navigation? I wish I knew. It’s always seemed to me that there was an untapped wealth of interactions when a physical object knew in which direction it was facing. By pairing that with a reconfigurable display that rendered menus and information based on that knowledge and in the correct orientation I sketched up many interfaces that I thought were exciting and natural. But, in the end, what always turned me off of designing portable devices around this sort of interaction, is that I could never come up with a configuration that wasn’t fully-attended by the user. I’ve always believed strongly that the measure of any portable device’s interface was how well a user could operate it while only glancing at it in brief intervals or even not at all. It’s been my biggest complaint about the iPod’s interface, it’s why I’m not optimistic about the iPhone, and why I like the Treo so much. I can’t wait to see what HTC has up its sleeve, and I’m looking forward to seeing more acceleration-based interfaces on portable devices. I just hope no one tries to use them while driving.

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