Google and Apple have both actively spent the last couple of years trying to solve the biggest problem in mobile: how to treat your finger taps differently depending upon context. Google's solution is to use big data to try to predict what you want; Apple's is to detect the force of a tap, essentially giving multitouch the equivalent of a right-click.
Now, Microsoft's having a go at fixing mobile's "one tap, one action" paradigm. The company has designed a special type of smartphone that blends Google's precognition with Force Touch's pressure sensitivity—a device that can detect how you're gripping your phone and predict when and where your finger is about to touch the screen.
In Microsoft Research's new paper, "Pre-Touch Sensing for Mobile Interaction," Ken Hinckley (who previously invented a stylus that reads your mind) and his colleagues describe how this new type of smartphone will work. It depends on a special kind of touchscreen that can sense the electrical disruption caused by a finger approaching the glass, as well as pressure sensors around the edge of the device. None of this technology is exotic—this type of smartphone is easily buildable now—but the options it affords UI/UX designers are bigger than the sum of its (literal) parts.
Using what it calls pre-touch sensing, Microsoft shows how a smartphone interface could essentially be turned off until it detects a finger approaching the screen. Microsoft calls this a "nick of time" UI, and it could do things like hide the player controls on a video until the instant they were needed. Not only that, but because this smartphone could detect how it is being held, it could also figure out which hand a finger belongs to. If you were using your phone one-handed, Microsoft's pre-touch sensing might present a very different interface than if you were gripping it with two hands—allowing you to easily scrub through a video with just your thumb, or offering a different keyboard depending on what fingers you have available.
One even more specific way the technology could improve mobile UI? By vastly improving the precision of tapping on small on-screen elements. For example, if you're reading a web page in your mobile browser, the UI could highlight the link you're trying to tap before you even tap it. It would also give mobile users the equivalent of a right-click. You could tap a file or icon with one finger, then hover your thumb over the screen to select between options in a contextual menu.
It's a fantastic demonstration of some innovative uses of existing technologies, but like all of Microsoft Research's projects, there's no telling whether or not this smartphone will ever come out of the prototype phase—especially as Microsoft winds down its Nokia smartphone business.