Locative Lab

researching locative media

Motion sensors – the next big thing in mobile phones?

I have a hunch, which unfortunately I don’t have time to research &
turn into a full report at the moment. So rather than let someone else
steal my thunder, I’ll blog about it instead.

I think the
coolest thing about the iPhone isn’t the multitouch screen or the
industrial design, it’s the motion sensor. No, the iPhone isn’t alone –
the Nokia 5500 has one too (“Nokia plans to introduce other phones that use 3D-motion-sensor technology in the near future”),
and I’ve seen references on the web to some others – in particular, it
wouldn’t surprise me if some local-only Japanese or Korean devices have
them. Then of course there’s the Nintendo Wii as well.

I’ll take
a punt here & predict that motion sensors will become pervasive
surprisingly quickly, and that we’re only at the tip of the iceberg in
understanding the applications. Sure, we know we can use it as a gaming
controller, or to detect which way up the screen should be displayed if
the device is held horizontally/vertically, or to monitor your sporting
achievements. But I reckon there’s a lot more to come.

I’ve seen
quite a few references to motion sensors being used to recognise
someone’s walking pattern. The suggestion is to use this as an
anti-theft “locking” function – someone half-inches your dog &
bone, and the tea leaf’s different gait alerts the phone to prompt you
for a password. (OK, sorry about the rhyming slang, it’s Friday…).

But I reckon the biggest thing is that it could appeal to operators
as well as being used for “local” uses like the ones above. Given that
operators specify (and certify and often subsidise) many handsets,
having something that has dual-appeal both direct to the end-user for applications, and to the operator for services
as well is likely to be a winner. It’s why cameras took off (User:
takes snaps; Operator (in theory!) gets MMS/email revenue) or even
Bluetooth (User: use headset in car safely. Operator: more minutes of
use). And it’s one of the reasons why WiFi attach rates in handsets
haven’t grown faster – it’s often difficult for the user to exploit the
WiFi for their own purposes as well as the operator’s (more on this in
another post).

So, what could be motion-sensor based services? I reckon it comes back to a theme I’m developing about “context” being more important
than “content”. If operators get access to the sensor APIs, they could
determine a lot more about how you want to communicate. It should be
possible for an advanced presence function to have status descriptions
like “walking”, “on a train”, “in a car” and so on. How about a service
which uses multi-context data – if the phone’s on charge and there’s
been no vibration consistent with footsteps for an hour, then there’s a
good probability that the user is either out of the room, or asleep. Or
which detects the combination of a car’s movement “fingerprint” plus
registers a Bluetooth headset being used – inference being that the
user won’t be able to look at the screen, and therefore sends video
calls straight to the mailbox.

These are just of the top of my
head. Yes, all of these could suffer horribly from false-positives and
false-negatives. I’ve said before how much I hate technology which
tries to second-guess me, unless it’s done really well (eg Google’s
“did you mean….” mistype-correction function).

I’ll keep
watching on this, as the more I think about it, motion-sensing is a key
part of the multicontext environment which will swiftly replace the
current narrow obsessions with content & multimedia on mobile
devices. If I was part of the Symbian or Windows Mobile teams, I’d make
sure I had an open sensor API on my near-term roadmaps, and I’d suggest
the JCP gets working on a Java one too….

PS – just noticed that this handset-centric sensor company
got more funding 2 weeks ago. Nice to know I’m looking ahead at the
same time as the VCs (who include Qualcomm, interestingly)….

PS2 – just seen this very detailed article
– if the price point is already at the $2 level, and they look small
enough to fit in a phone, I reckon this is a done deal. I can see this
getting to 10-20% penetration in the next 3 years, ie >100m devices.
Get writing, apps developers…..



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Cityscape LocativeLab.org is Ronald Lenz's research website on locative & mobile media. This is mostly an archive of blogposts I find inspiring and interesting and an overview of my work. I'm a strategist, technologist and researcher in the field of Location-Based Mobile Services and work at Waag Society, a medialab in Amsterdam, The Netherlands where I head the Locative Media research program and at 7scenes, a platform for GPS games and tours as creative director. Picture 4 Find me at Twitter, LinkedIn or via ronald [at] waag [dot] org.

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