The touchscreen, which freed us from the restrictions of the physical keyboard, continues to evolve, becoming stronger, more efficient, and even flexible. But what if you didn’t need to ever lay finger to glass to control a phone with your hands? At Mobile World Congress 2013, we were introduced to a new technology for controlling your phone that frees users from the constraints of physical touch by extending an area of influence outside the device itself.
The tech comes from a Swedish company named Neonode, which showed off its Bluetooth Proximity Sensor. Most smartphones have a proximity sensor already – it’s the gadget that senses when the phone is against you face and turns off the screen. Imagine a more sensitive version of this with a longer range extending out around the edge of your phone, and you’re on your way to understanding how Neonode’s tech works.
For the sake of the demonstration, Neonode’s proximity sensor had been fitted to an iPhone case, which synced with the phone using Bluetooth. This is a viable product itself, but the sensors can also be built into the hardware without the need for a case or a Bluetooth connection. Also, while it was demoed using an iPhone, it’s platform agnostic, so could find its way into Android and Windows Phone 8 hardware in the future.
Control games without touching the screen
Neonode first demonstrated its tech with a simple, Pong-like app. Instead of controlling the paddle by swiping your finger across the screen, you tapped and held either side of the screen on the pedestal’s surface to influence the paddle’s direction. So, when you want it to move to the right, you tapped and held until it reached the desired point, then raised your finger. It took a moment to adjust to this new system, but once you thought of it like pressing a pair of invisible buttons, it became perfectly normal. Neonode’s own video demonstration shows a racing game where the steering is controlled using gestures either side of the device.
An app with a simple drum kit provided the final demonstration: Tapping the table simulated the hit of a drumstick, but this time you could vary the position of where you tapped to correspond with the drum or cymbal on the screen you wanted to hit. Because the proximity sensors were mounted in a Bluetooth-connected case, you could remove it and still use it to “play.” It has zero latency, even when the case is more than a meter away from the phone, and each gesture provided an instant response. Its potential use as a wireless gaming controller is obvious.
Virtual keyboards a possibility
Gaming isn’t the only possible use, either. Provided there are enough sensors fitted to the device or case, it would be possible to use them to recognize key presses on a virtual keyboard. We’ve seen concept devices with projected virtual keyboards before, and Neonode’s proximity sensors make them possible. The useful range can extended out to two meters with very little additional battery drain, and the sensors can be used to cover the sides, front and rear of a phone – opening up the potential for adding gesture controls, such as waving your hand over the phone to silence an alarm or incoming call. Proximity sensing on this level shouldn’t be restricted to high-end hardware, as the cost of fitting the sensors is minimal enough they could appear on feature phones with little impact on the final price.
While we’re still a ways away from seeing Neonode’s sensors fitted to a smartphone we can buy, the company announced at the show it had signed a deal with the Chinese manufacturer Shenzhen Wave. The platform – which Neonode calls Smartphone One – will be added to a new range of Android phones and tablets currently being developed by the firm by the end of the year. From the look of its website, Shenzhen Wave will be a newcomer to consumer electronics, so it’s not clear whether we’ll see them outside of Asia, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn ZTE and Huawei were also eyeing up Neonode’s tech as another way to make their products stand out.
After trying out Neonode’s sensor tech, a smartphone with a free-air, 360-degree multitouch control system has become equally as tantalizing as one with a wraparound, flexible touchscreen. Put them both together, and the prospect is even more exciting. Let’s hope we get to see something like it in the near future.