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Can You See Me Now? September 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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The mobile devices we carry grow in capability and sophistication every day.  It seems that what used to be phones that did clever things are now mobile computers that happen to make phone calls.  Is there a limit to what we’ll be able to use these devices for?  I think so, but it has nothing to do with power, memory, or computing capacity.

The real limit has to do with the length of your arm. I’ve found that I can no longer hold my phone far enough from my eyes to read the display.  There may be an app for that, but I can’t see it.

Seriously, there is a harsh correlation between our aging eyes and our inability to actually read the screens on these oh-so-clever devices.  Regrettably, many of these devices are designed and programmed by people with sharp, youthful vision.  In the hands of more seasoned users, the display icons, text, and even the buttons are too small or dim to see.

Setting aside the apps and the UI, I suspect one of the reasons for the success of the iPhone is that big, glorious screen.  When the text is big enough to read, you can still fit enough content on the display to be useful.  This is a big deal for those of us who spend a lot of time squinting or reaching for reading glasses.

But, some will say, there have been big-screen mobile devices before the iPhone.  What about them?

Prior to the iPhone, devices had stylus-centric interfaces.  When you are poking at things with a toothpick, developers tend to cram lots of tiny buttons and widgets on the display.  The iPhone has a finger-centric interface, with finger-sized buttons.  Finger-sized buttons are big enough to be read by those of us who are old enough to remember rotary-dial phones.  I’ll point out that the size of an icon on an iPhone is about the size of a finger-hole in a rotary phone dial. Coincidence?  Yes, but a meaningful one.

I suspect that we are about to hit a wall in the usability of mobile phones.  The display can’t get much bigger without making the phone annoyingly large in your purse or pocket.  Increasing the screen resolution packs more pixels on the display, but that just lets you create sharper widgets that are still too small to be seen by anyone over 45. I’ll take low-res and sharp over hi-res and blurry any day.

As a result, the amount of information can be displayed on a phone is about to hit a limit imposed by your age, the lens of your eye, the size of your hand, and the distance between your ear and your mouth.  That information limit will affect the complexity of applications that get developed. Until we get some breakthrough in implantable display devices, the applications on our phones aren’t going to get much more elaborate.

And for all you smirking young developers out there, have pity on us older folks.  Test your UI on your Mom to make sure everyone can see it.  And just you wait.  Your time is coming, my friend.  Your time is coming.

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1. John Baker - September 30, 2009

The interface of the mobile platform can be extended via creative use of technologies. Take a look at what the MIT Media Lab has been playing with… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUdDhWfpqxg


2. Aaron - September 30, 2009

My hands are bigger than our high school’s tallest pre-1980 basketball center.

I am plenty adept at large-motor coordination like swinging a bat and aiming a rifle. I abandoned model airplane making by the time my hands were bigger than those of most adults. I never went BlackBerry because my thumbs are about as precise as typing with hot dogs as styli. I never talk with my hands and gesturing has never been a part of my communication style. Physical communication is counter-evolutionary. It’s what we did before we developed language.

Icon-based interfaces is a retreat to hieroglyphics, whose tenured scholars STILL puzzle over meanings. Give me text which is MUCH more efficient and more likely to survive cultural changes over centuries. Do I want pictures of the food on my chinese menu? No… I can’t see if there’s beef or chicken in that eggroll. “Beef eggroll” is optimally efficient for anyone familiar with an eggroll. No, I do NOT want an interface which requires me to reproduce some skinny Silicon Valley geek’s version of what a “pinch” or “wipe” or this week’s ephemerally cool gesture should be. I have another one-handed gesture for those who would force me to gesture to control technology, but it’s not family-friendly.

In the meantime, I’m pained because the price on Ebay for gently used Palm Tungsten E’s (circa 2003 technology) has more than doubled in the last year and I need a replacement for my beloved PDA. Has someone figured out how to use them for a different application, like changing the orbits of broadcasting satellites, causing demand to skyrocket? Or is it simply desperation of the diehards who need replacements for units they’ve sat on and cracked the screens?

3. Chuck Musciano - October 1, 2009

@John: I had seen that video before. Very clever, like all the other cool stuff that the Media lab works on. But do you really think it could translate into a consumer device? Do I really need help from my phone to buy paper towels (or anything else)? Imagine a world where everyone is simultaneously projecting augmented reality data everywhere! And I thought Bluetooth headsets were annoying (more on that tomorrow)!

@Aaron: As a UI designer, I’ve had the icon/text debate with folks for years, and have been on both sides. Both choices have good and bad sides. Text is harder to read and limits multi-lingual interfaces; icons transcend language but can be ambiguous. Airports are a working lab for this, with combined icons and text for things.

I share your sense of loss on the Palm devices. I was a big Palm user from my first Palm III, through the LifeDrive, and finally a Tungsten T. Palm dropped the ball on a greta device, and now they will die a slow death. I’ve moved on to Windows Mobile devices and cannot wait until the HTC Touch Pro 2 releases on AT&T in a few days.

Old geek habits die hard. And more on that in a week or so.

Excellent comments, all. Thanks so much!

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