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Size matters: Smartphones push the envelope

Size matters: Smartphones push the envelope

When I receive a text message on my Android phone, unless I can reply with one word or fewer I generally wait until I get to my computer to respond via e-mail.  If the message is urgent, I call the person back the old-fashioned way.  Why?  I can't tolerate pecking away on the tiny virtual keyboard on the phone's screen.

Lenovo is looking to solve that problem with a new technology it is developing called Smart  Cast.

Last month, Lenovo showed off a prototype smartphone with a built-in laser projector that uses Smart Cast to display a keyboard on a hard surface, such as a wall or a table.  The technology also employs an infrared camera to read the user's keystrokes. 

By itself, of course, that's not a really big deal.  CTX Virtual Technologies has had a laser projection device on the market for some time that connects to smartphones via Bluetooth and displays a functional, full-size 78-key QWERTY keyboard on a hard surface.

While it's a slick idea to have that capability built right into a phone, it's likely that Lenovo's Smart Cast will suffer from similar limitations as CTX's VK200 Keyfob.  Specifically, there's no tactile feedback when you're typing.  Also, with the CTX device your fingers must be kept at least 3-4 millimeters above the virtual keys or you may accidentally activate keys.  If you're like me and you often rest your fingers on the keys of a real keyboard, that's a surprisingly daunting requirement to conform to.

Unfortunately, since no units are available for testing and Lenovo isn't replying to queries, it will be sometime before we can confirm this. 

At the same time, one big advantage of Lenovo's Smart Cast is that it can be programmed to project more than keyboards.  Lenovo's demonstration included a functional piano keyboard and sheet music. 

And the prototype Smart Cast can reportedly also project phone content, such as spreadsheets and photographs.  This brings to mind Samsung's Galaxy Beam, a smartphone with a built-in digital light projector that can be used to screen photographs or other content from the phone on virtually any surface.  While the capability was really cool, however, sales of the Galaxy Beam were poor enough in the United States that Samsung isn't marketing the latest version of the phone here.  If you want it, you'll have to get it from China.

There are two cautionary notes for those designing slick technologies to overcome the size limitations of smartphones, and now of smartwatches.  First, the technologies must accommodate the quirky desires of the humans using them.  For me at least, it's not enough to project a keyboard.  I need to have tactile feedback, and I'll postpone a message until I can reach a real keyboard to get it. 

Second, users don't need every possible technology to be implemented on their devices.  For the relatively infrequent times we want to show that photo on our phone to a group of people, why not just connect the phone to a Bluetooth projector?

Actually, the most promising technology for overcoming the size limitations on inputting data to a smartphone is the rapidly improving voice recognition.  I've found that using the voice input on my Android makes it possible to enter generally clean responses to text messages without the frustration of the virtual keyboard.  The biggest remaining limitation of voice input is the difficulty of making corrections to the few errors that do occur.

Of course, until the voice technology gets better, there's always the option chosen by many of simply putting boilerplate at the bottom of each message from their text messages: "Please excuse typos, sent from my smartphone." 

Posted by Patrick Marshall on Jun 16, 2015 at 10:16 AM


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