The wide world of multi-touch

A fresh look at mobile user interfaces

The Apple iPhone has turned the mobile communications market on its head. With hard and software working together like never before, new user interfaces have emerged that redefine “intuitive”. But competitors aren’t ones to sit idly by; by now, the entire smartphone market has plenty to offer. A Karlsruhe-based company called PTV joined forces with the Steinbeis Transfer Center Innovation > Development > Application (IDA) to explore emerging opportunities.

As a provider of software in traffic, transportation and logistics, PTV pays special attention to mobile computer systems. And that’s what you have to call the latest generation of “intelligent telephones” since the actual calling functions have almost taken a backseat. Today’s devices are, in certain respects, small computers, more than capable of outperforming desktop computers from ten years ago.

That means new challenges for software developers. They need to engineer a new kind of user interface for these devices. Why? Neither the tree menus of older mobile phones nor the windows-based systems of today’s PCs are suited to the new breed of phones. The difference an interface makes is perfectly illustrated by iPhone’s Mobile Safari Web browser. It makes Web pages not specifically adapted to mobile phones simple to read – and easy to use.

A key Apple design decision for this phone was to forgo the stylus. Other manufacturers have followed suit. When you include a stylus, you can design complex and detailed interfaces just as you would with systems that rely on a mouse. This covers the spectrum of small scroll bars on tiny screen keyboards to buttons that you need a stylus to press. With this avenue closed down, designers need to engineer their programs for touch input only.

What prevents this from becoming cumbersome for developers and users alike? Today’s mobile operating systems feature plenty of mechanisms. Instead of using scroll bars, you simply touch lists with your finger and drag them. Buttons are large enough to press quite easily. And as multi-touch interfaces can follow the movements of several fingers, you can enlarge and rotate the elements you want without hassle.

As a complement to the touchscreen, motion sensors are gaining ground. All you have to do is turn the phone to rotate the screen. If your phone is equipped with a complete accelerometer, you can do even more: by tilting the phone, you can “fly” across maps or “shake” an application back to its starting point.

On behalf of Karlsruhe-based PTV, the Steinbeis Transfer Center IDA is investigating what opportunities the new systems offer and how they can be optimally exploited. The experts set their sights on the iPhone as, of all the smartphones in use, it has the most sophisticated operating system and the most flexible user interface. Multi-touch capabilities play a key role in this. The first stage of the analysis focused on maps; they lie at the heart of many road traffic applications. So the first components to develop would be ones that would work in a variety of ways to display map information and help users interact with the data.

The Steinbeis experts used the Apple iPhone SDK as a development environment. The outcome of their efforts: an easy-to-use and highly adaptable map. It can change how it displays information based on input from PTV’s server systems. This includes upto- the-minute traffic information, points of interest, routes, terrain information, and vehicle location. The system also makes it incredibly easy to integrate data from other sources – meaning developers can quickly create applications that are tailored to the needs of corporate clients.

The map uses iPhone standards – using multi-touch zoom and scrolling the map with your finger. You can show where you are at any time; this is calculated by GPS, WLAN or mobile communications. Optional: map navigation using a motion sensor – you can even zoom in by quickly turning the phone. Although this type of use is still being researched, its opportunities are appealing. The “turn and zoom” option could prove superior to conventional “finger operated” methods when maps need to keep up with rapid movements.

These maps were used to build two application prototypes. The first demonstrates the map itself; the second shows points of interest and extra pop-up information. The iPhone applications use the same servers as PTV’s existing Web applications. As a result, the company can update map information without incurring extra server maintenance.

These first prototypes helped PTV secure contracts for customized iPhone applications. Development expenditures are more or less contained since work on the map also produced several other components that can be used for other purposes – client/server communication and the graphical user interface layout, just to name two. The future for this new generation of mobile applications looks very rosy indeed. If you’ve tested them even once, you’re a convert. Using them is a great fun, any way you look at it!

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