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Mobile whizzes tout gadgets that touch you, save your life

Innovation hidden in the small stands

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MWC 2012 A search around the MWC in Barcelona for something more interesting revealed a phone which can perform an ECG, a headset you operate by shaking it about like a loon, and a touchscreen that touches you back.

Mobile phones have morphed into black slabs these days, better distinguished by the logo on the front than any breakthrough design, on the big stands at least. But if time allows for browsing between the monoliths and little guys, then there is still innovation to be found, proving that technology and interfacing continues to develop even if the handset design seems temporarily stalled.

Quite a few attendees and exhibitors at the congress spoke about how mobile development in 2012 was reminiscent of PC development back in the '90s. Back then, Asian manufacturers were spitting out streams of beige boxes, each with specifications which challenged their design departments to come up with ever-more hyperbolic graphics encapsulating the concept of speed. Logos incorporating big cats, fighter jets, Formula 1 cars and speed boats were all staples of the PC era, and the same visual metaphors kept popping up all over the show in Barcelona, extolling the unprecedented power of the latest black slab.

Huawei's stand even had a 20-foot Pegasus constructed entirely from of black slabs, just to remind us that its black slabs boast bigger numbers than the black slabs being touted by its rivals.

Arther C Clarke would have been proud.

But more interesting was the tiny stand from EPhone, which has the patent on phones capable of performing an electrocardiogram (ECG) on the user. Touch two fingers to the contact points on the outside of the handset (ironically aping the iPhone 4 "Grip of Death") and it will happily produce an on-screen trace showing the rhythm of one's heart, which can be instantly emailed off to one's physician, or (at a push) handed to ambulance staff. EPhone soon established that punters don't like their doctor dictating their choice of handset, so the company now has a puck-sized Bluetooth-enabled version of its original handset that it sells for less than a hundred dollars.

Jawbone's ERA headset might not be able to tell if you're about to have a heart attack, but it does demonstrate that mobile technology has caught up with Star Trek: The Next Generation. An embedded accelerometer enables you to answer a call by tapping yourself twice on the ear, or shaking the headset if it's not being worn. Bluetooth pairing is triggered by shaking the headset twice, twice (four times altogether), which might attract strange looks but you shouldn't have to do that very often.

But most interesting of all was the technology being shown by Senseg, which makes screens that touch you back. The technique is horrifyingly clever, an electrostatic charge is used to pull one's finger infinitesimally closer to the screen on demand, which manifests as apparent lumps and bumps on the screen replicating (in the demonstration) fabric, corrugations, or even fur. The effect is not perfect by any means, and at its most basic is comparable to the kind of vibrational haptics being advocated by Immersion, but the fact that the vibration is delivered to the finger, rather than the device, is a compelling differentiation and makes the experience a lot more comfortable.

It's clear that the vibration is only delivered to the finger as Senseg's prototypes only work properly when held with the other hand to complete the capacitive circuit – which could be considered a feature if you try hard enough.

Senseg is at the prototype stage, but assures us that its technology can be applied to any glass surface (and varnished over for protection) using the same machinery which is already applying the various layers to touch screens today.

Selling new technologies to mass-market manufacturers is always tough, such businesses don't have the margins to take significant risks and so would always prefer incremental improvements – like a faster processor or bigger memory – over radical new ideas. But they are also terrified of being left behind, as evidenced by the scramble to drop NFC into handsets, so the best way to sell such tech isn't to claim that users want it, only that the competition is going to do it.

Even then, it's a lot less risky to make another run of slabs and fire up the graphics department again, which is a shame. ®

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