Handheld users have been accustomed for years to interacting with their handhelds through a stylus. However, researchers at Microsoft have been studying the idea of creating devices designed to be used with the thumb.
Current handhelds generally require the use of two hands: device in one hand, stylus in the other. Microsoft hopes to allow future devices to be used with a single hand.
As a thumb tip is much larger than a stylus tip, this means that the user interface must be redesigned.
A team of three people, one at Microsoft Research and the other two at the University of Maryland, have come up with AppLens and LaunchTile, two possible user interfaces.
These are not intended to completely replace all the Windows Mobile software. Instead, they are "shell" applications that organize and manage access to other applications.
One of these possible user interfaces is called AppLens. This displays a 3x3 grid of small views of applications (see picture).
Tapping on a one of the small tiles expands the view of that application.
In addition, the researchers developed a system of controlling the functions of AppLens with just the thumb. Users can't enter text, but they can still perform many other tasks.
These gestures were designed around the limited range of motion the thumb has while the device is being held.
The other user interface the Microsoft researchers came up with, called LaunchTile, arranges applications into a 6x6 grid. However, all 36 applications aren't displayed at the same time. Instead, the user scrolls around on the grid, and four application times are displayed at a time.
This scrolling is done with the handheld's or smartphone's D-pad.
The user can quickly jump back to the middle, and tiles for the four most important applications are displayed there.
The researchers did a small study to judge the usability of the user interfaces they had created. In general, study participants preferred AppLens to LaunchTile. However, many of them struggled to get used to the thumb gestures needed to navigate.
The full text of the researcher's report can be found on the University of Maryland web site.
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