Reg test-drives MyOrigo motion control smartphone
Quick spin round the block
Preview When we first wrote about MyOrigo and its motion-controlled cellphone, MyDevice, a few weeks ago, the Finnish technology company appeared to be offering little more than a handful of Flash animations with which to persuade mobile phone networks and punters that MyDevice is worthy of closer attention. We demanded a demo of the real thing, and earlier this week we got one.
MyDevice turns out to be a rather natty unit about the size of a closed Nokia 7650. It doesn't look all that different, either. MyDevice is a aluminium-coloured handset with a 176 x 320 16-bit colour LCD in the centre. Above and below it are eight buttons - four on top, four below. Right at the top sits the speaker. There's no keypad.
The 7650 has a built-in digicam, and so does MyDevice, on the rear of the unit. On the sides of the device are two more buttons and a SD Card slot, on its base a small form-factor USB port, headphone socket, power connector and the microphone. On top is the phone's IrDA port.
Switch MyDevice on, and all similarities to the 7650 - and other cameraphones or smartphones, for that matter - end. What distinguishes MyOrigo's product from the rest is its unique user interface. It's not quite as clever as the company suggests, but it's no less impressive for all that, and we think it's going to win friends and influence people when it comes to market toward the end of the year.
MyOrigo's UI provides all the functions you'd expect from a modern smartphone: messaging, personal information management, email and web browsing. We didn't look at these in detail because we were more interested in the device's UI rather than an application set that's ten-a-penny these days. But we will look at these in depth when we review the product in a few months' time.
On a roll with motion control
MyOrigo's UI was designed to do four things, says Johan Granholm, the company's VP for sales and marketing: to be intuitive, to offer motion control, to provide 'haptic' feedback and use a technique MyOrigo calls 'mirroring'.
Motion control is the foundation, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. The most up-front example is MyDevice's ability to redraw the display from portrait to landscape mode and back again, but that's by no means unique. MyDevice does it on the fly, with barely any lag - and what there is is as much a product of the LCD refresh rate as the device's ability to flip the image. Rotate the unit beyond a certain angle and its single, solid-state sensor, which can detect motion in three dimensions, triggers the screen redraw. It's simple and effective.
Mirroring works in a similar way. MyOrigo calls it 'mirroring' because it's like looking in a hand mirror. Straight on, you can see you face. If you want to see what's over your left shoulder, you tilt the mirror in that direction. MyDevice uses the same principle to scroll its display over a larger, virtual image such as a web page. Dial up a page and MyDevice displays its top-left hand corner. Tilting the device to the right scrolls over to the top-right hand corner; tilt it in another direction and the page flows past accordingly. It's a little odd at first, but it works. And it's far better than every other PDA or cellphone based browser since you don't have to press buttons or tap and hold with a stylus to move around the page.
Like the display flipping, mirroring is very responsive. It's only activated when you hold down one of the buttons on the side of the unit. Releasing the mirroring button fixes the display's position above the virtual page, so you can read it without worrying that a shaky hand is going to nudge the page past the bit you're interested in.
The downside is that you still have to pause and move the cursor around the display manually - the screen is touch-sensitive - to activate links. It would have been good for links to highlight automatically as the centre of the display passed over them, with the link triggered by a double-click on the mirroring activation button, but you can't have everything. It's still a clever way of getting over the inherent size difference between displays and web pages.
The screen's touch-sensitivity allows MyDevice to dispense with a keyboard - up pops a virtual QWERTY layout or numeric pad whenever you need one or t'other. And you can navigate through the UI by touching on-screen panels too. It's more fun - and quicker - to use motion control. MyDevice's main screen lists the apps as a page of tiles. Tilting the device highlights the next tile in the direction of the tilt, scrolling if necessary. A flick of the wrist and the button is 'pressed' and you're on to the next screen. Again, it takes a little practice, but it is, as Granholm promises, remarkably intuitive. Selecting, say, an individual contact and dialling his or her number is just a matter of a few tilts and wrist-flicks.
Granholm is particularly proud of mirroring, but we reckon the motion controlled one-hand navigation is what will win MyDevice the plaudits. It remains to be seen how effective it is with a typical smartphone user's well-stocked contact book and diary, but on the basis of an hour's play with MyOrigo's prototype unit, it scores significantly over today's button and stylus-based UIs.
Before you decide we've lost our head over MyDevice, we'll come on to the weakest link among MyOrigo's four UI components: haptic feedback. The word 'haptic' comes from the Greek haptikos from haptesthai, meaning to touch and to grasp. Essentially, haptics is the study of human-computer interaction through touch-sensitive systems. In MyOrigo's case that means vibrating the phone when you press an on-screen key. Granholm talks about the opportunities for developers to create Java games with force-feedback, for which is all well and good, but we still think a phone or PDA that bleeps when you press a key is feedback enough.
We mention Java because that's one of MyOrigo's key selling points: the language provides an open platform for easy application and user interface customisation. That's important for MyOrigo, because it's targeting the phone at cellular networks look to offer branded technology, much as Orange does with its PocketPC-based SPV smartphone.
The ODM connection
Actually, we should say Microcell is targeting such customers. MyOrigo is owned by the same folks who control Microcell, a handset manufacturer based in Switzerland which lists Sony Ericsson among its customers. Microcell is putting MyDevice into production now, with volume output expected in August in order to allow customers to ship the product in time for a pre-Christmas release. Microcell will be targeting the European GSM/GPRS market first, with Far Eastern and US roll-outs sometime next year, says Granholm. MyDevice's tri-band modem is modular, allowing Microcell to swap in CDMA version in due course - and 3G, of course.
MyDevice's Java foundation comes courtesy of UK-based Tao's (pronounced 'dow's') Intent multimedia operating system, chosen by MyOrigo for its speed and low memory footprint, says Granholm. Intent is known for its high performance implementation of Java, but its USP is arguably is independence from OS, CPU and programming language. That, says Tao business development director Doug Goodwin, frees handset makers to use hardware they feel best meets there needs, add an OS, be it Intent itself, or Symbian, Windows Mobile for Smartphones or whatever, and allow content developers to code in whatever language they know best.
MyOrigo approached Tao to uses its JVM and Intent runtime, but ended up taking the whole OS, says Goodwin. The telephony IP stack came from a third-party, adds Granholm, and we understand some of Espial's code has been licensed too.
Tao has the backing of the likes of Sony, Motorola, Kyocera, NEC, Sharp and Mitsubishi. MyOrigo has its Microcell connection. Certainly, then, MyDevice has the market credentials that network operators will expect. They key, though, is winning the hearts and minds of a public faced with a vast array of trendy new multimedia handsets from Nokia and co. MyOrigo is drawing up plans for MyDevice follow-ons, targeting different sectors of the handset market, and while network operators may be tempted by the phone's ability to allow them to 'own' the UI, MyOrigo and Microcell still have to swim against the tide of established brands. And the smartphone category is by no means a large one.
That said, MyOrigo can at least point to its novel UI and control system as a USP, something few handset start-ups have been able to provide in the past. We liked what we saw - the question for MyOrigo and Microcell is will handset buyers like it too. ®