Haptics and Sensors: The new toolset for handset differentiation?

[Haptics, sensors, gesture tracking, intelligent texting and pico projectors; a taste of the technology soup headed our way. Guest author Peter Crocker discusses how sensor technologies offer handset differentiation, and the challenges ahead for OEMs.]

Haptics and sensors - the new toolset for handset differentiation

Innovation is the name of the game for handset manufacturers. Not just for Apple who keeps expanding the envelope of hardware and UI capabilities, but all major OEMs who are looking to differentiate beyond software. Android and Windows Phone are now providing an end-to-end device recipe for device makers, from hardware to a developer ecosystem. As such, handset OEMs (Nokia, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson) are finding themselves on the same playing field as PC assemblers (Acer, Dell, plus the likes of Huawei, ZTE and Visio). In the post-Android era, not only is the playing field leveling, but it’s also becoming more crowded. More importantly, unless handset OEMs can find ways to differentiate they’ll have to default to competing on price, which is exactly what they want to avoid; the OEM cost structure is not designed to withstand razor-thin margins.

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One way to differentiate is with phone features – not GHz figures, but the type that would have a major impact to the user experience. Many OEMs would crave to break into the market with innovations such as what the Palm Graffiti handwriting recognition was at its time.

Feature innovation comes today in many forms, as manufacturers try to evolve smartphones into smarter phones; haptics, predictive texting, gesture recognition technology, inertia sensors, digital compasses, and the emergence of pico projectors to name a few.

A taste of feature innovation
– Next Generation Haptics: Haptics, or the process of using motion or vibrations to create tactile feedback on a users hand or finger, has been around for quite a while, with solutions available from Immersion and Synaptics. As an alternative to using touch-sensitive screens, companies like eyeSight and GestureTek are using the built-in phone camera to analyse hand motions and recognize gestures.

– Inertia and direction sensors: handset makers are following Apple’s lead with the integration of accelerometers, digital compasses and gyroscopes into the phone. These sensors can be leveraged to support for example improved location through dead reckoning and gesture recognition. Gyroscopes and compasses are also providing precise data on the location of a device in the three dimensional plane opening the door to augmented reality applications. Companies such as Layar and Wikitude are helping developers walk through that door with AR software platforms.

– Predictive Text & Gesture Tracking: Predictive texting has seen limited innovation beyond plain-old T9; as such a range of vendors have emerged to provide significant improvements in prediction and correction accuracy, namely Keypoint, EXB, TouchType, Cootek, Keisense (now Nuance) and BlindType (acquired by Google). New forms of predictive texting combined with gesture recognition technology such as as Swype and ShapeWriter (acquired by Nuance) is enabling quicker text input on a touchscreen – for example tracking the movement of a finger on a touch screen, a phone moving in space with inertia sensors, or tracking hand movements with infrared technology hand gestures.

– Pico Projectors: While the integration of pico projectors, or mini video projectors, into mainstream phones is still a ways off, the technology from the likes of TI and Micorvision claims to overcome one of the biggest UI challenges of mobile device, small screens.

What’s more, combining such features can yield more than the sum of the parts. For example, gesture recognition technology combined with haptics could allow users to effectively navigate applications. Similarly, the combination of pico projectors, gesture recognition and image tracking technology could eventually enable interfaces that will resemble Sci-Fi movies.

Integration challenges
As easy as it may sound, innovative features are not just about shopping components off the shelf. Cost is an important consideration, especially for technologies that require specialized components that do not enjoy economies of scale. For example, the green laser required in a pico projector represents one third of the cost of the entire system due to the fact that the part has no use beyond a pico projector.

Integrating new technologies into handsets is a further challenge for handset designers. Digital compasses are sensitive to electronic interference and need to be carefully positioned within the phone to avoid interacting with neighboring electronics. The design of haptics mechanisms also presents many problems. In a typical haptics system design, touch screens float in their frames and are held in place by flexible materials that allow the screen to vibrate creating haptics effects. These designs can fail letting dust inside the device or the screen can separate from the frame if the device is dropped. OEM’s are still learning how to effectively incorporate such features into their designs.

A number of start-ups are working on overcoming these barriers in addition to creating new capabilities. Senseg in Helsinki is eliminating the need for moving parts in haptics systems and has created a system that it claims can pinpoint tactile feedback. InvenSense has brought to market a motions sensing MEMS chip that integrates a gyroscope and accelerometer in one chip, making it easier for OEMs to integrate and reduce cost. Light Blue Optics has developed a pico projector that creates a holographic image and infrared sensors to turn any surface into a virtual touch screen. The company also just raised $13 million to shrink the technology.

Innovation of course requires risk-taking. OEMs are finding themselves in a chicken and egg scenario; design cutting edge features first, or wait for the apps to leverage the features? Samsung and HTC seem to be comfortable taking such risks. Samsung was the first to introduce a phone with an integrated pico projector in 2009 and the Galaxy S sports a gyroscope, Swipe technology and an Augmented Reality browser. HTC is also pushing the envelope having developed and launched devices with home grown haptics.

Undoubtedly users will be the biggest winners as OEMs battle to wow new customers. A close second will be application developers who will stretch their imagination to build new applications and businesses around emerging features.  While these opportunities are compelling, progress will not happen overnight. Gyroscopes are still only available in high end smartphones and next generation haptics will only appear in niche devices next year. If you’re interested in building an app for a pico projector, you may be waiting a few more years.

The question is: is this new roster of sensor technologies going to allow OEMs for once to out innovate Apple?


[Peter Crocker is the founder and principal analyst at Smith’s Point Analytics (www.smithspointanalytics.com), a full service market research company helping innovators in the mobile and wireless market better understand emerging opportunities. Peter has been in the mobile and wireless industry since 2003 and holds an MBA from the College of William and Mary. Peter can be reached at peter@smithspointanalytics.com]

2010 in review: Under-the-radar trends at Mobile World Congress

[Following a week of frantic announcements and marketing hype at MWC 2010, VisionMobile’s Research Director, Andreas Constantinou looks at what really matters – the under-the-radar trends that will make the biggest impact in the next two years]

The annual Mobile World Congress, besides a circus frenzy of 49,000 people has also traditionally been a barometer of mobile industry trends. This year we look at the under-the-radar trends that may have gone unnoticed, but will make a major impact during 2010-11.

1. Building developer bridges
If there was a theme to this year’s Mobile World Congress it was Developers. This year’s App Planet show-in-a-show gathered 20,000 visitors, making the stands of LTE vendors and the CBoss showgirls look pale in comparison.

Imagine that. After years and years of efforts in ‘pushing’ the next-gen killer technology (on-device portals, Mobile TV, widgets, ..), the mobile industry is finally seeking inspiration beyond its own confines; at the software developers that will generate even more ‘apps for that’ and drive innovation that will actually pay for the bandwidth investments.

The race is on to grab the best mobile developers – and the mobile industry is spending big money on it. This year’s sponsors of mobile developer contests and events are not just platform providers or handset OEMs. Just look at the some of the sponsors of the WIP Jam developer event at MWC: Qualcomm, Alcatel Lucent, Ericsson, NAVTEQ, O2 Litmus, Oracle.

Developer mindshare is expensive as developers have to be attracted away from other platforms which they have invested in; and as such we would argue that the average DAC (developer acquisition cost) is much higher than the average SAC (subscriber acquisition cost). Thankfully there are plenty of marketing budgets to throw into the challenge. Palm is spending $1 million to build its own developer community in a dire effort to win back its once-thriving community of mobile developers.

It’s ironic given that it only took the mobile industry 20 years to learn what the software industry understood since the early 1990s; that the smartest people work for someone else, but they will gladly work for your platform if you give them the right tools and audience. And it’s most appropriate that this realisation is happening right now, as the two industries are coming together in the post-iPhone era.

One of the big announcements at this year’s MWC was the Wholesale Application Community (WAC), the new operator collaborative effort at connecting to developers. WAC is born out of the merge of two initiatives: OMTP’s BONDI (device API specs for securely accessing user information on the device) and the Joint Innovation Lab, JIL (which besides the hype has had delivered only a widget spec). WAC is an intent of operator collaboration, but one which yet needs to decide what it will be delivering.

The GSMA App Planet, WIP Jam, WAC and many other initiatives are trying to capitalise on one of the hottest, yet perhaps understated trends of 2010: building commercial bridges or matchmaking platforms between software developers and the mobile industry. Next question: what’s your platform’s DAC (developer acquisition cost)?

[shameless plug: at VisionMobile, we ‘re running the biggest mobile developer survey to date, spanning 400+ developers, 8 platforms and 35+ data points across the entire developer journey. Best of all, the results will be freely published thanks to the sponsorship by O2 Litmus]

2. Quantum leap in mobile devices
Industry pundits have been overoptimistic about the dominance of smartphones, time and time again.; but contrary to predictions, the smartphone market share has remained at circa 15-17% of sales as phone manufacturers have remained risk averse; Instead of porting high-cost, high-risk operating systems like Symbian and Windows Mobile on mass market phones, OEMs have preferred to patch their legacy low-risk RTOS platforms with high-end features (read touchscreen, widgets and the like) – see earlier analysis here.

Yet the mobile software map is about to change rather abruptly; not because of Android, but as chipset vendors make the leap to sub-40nm manufacturing. Chip cost plays a major role in handset BOM (bill of materials) and that cost is directly proportional to the surface area of the silicon (excluding royalty payments). With the move to sub-40 nm manufacturing processes, you can fit a GPU (graphical processing unit) and even ARM Cortex architectures within the same die size. This means that the smartphone BOM will reduce from $200 to $100 in only 2 years, based on our sources at chipset vendors – and implies that MeeGo, Symbian, Windows Mobile and Android can penetrate into a far large addressable market than was possible before.

Adobe is banking on this very trend, planning (hoping?) that Flash penetration will reach 50% of smartphones by 2010, or circa 150M devices sold per year. Similarly, Nokia sees revenue contributions from S40 handsets dwindle from around 55% in 2009 to 35% in 2011, replaced by MeeGo (circa 10%) and Symbian (circa 55%) – see slide from Nokia’s Industry Analyst event. This also goes to show Nokia’s continuing investment in Symbian, at a time when the future of the Symbian Foundation is shady.

Virtualisation technology is further accelerating the BOM reduction, by allowing the likes of Android and Symbian OSes to sit on the same CPU as the modem stack. OK Labs introduced off-the-shelf reference designs for virtualised Android and Symbian earler in 2009, while at MWC 2010 Virtualogix announced similar deals with ST Ericsson and Infineon. The third (and last!) virtualisation vendor, VMWare (who acquired Trango), is yet to make a similar move.

Last but not least, we are seeing new attempts at re-architecting low-cost smartphone software. Qualcomm is making a comeback with its BREW MP software positioning this as a feature-phone operating system and getting major commitments by AT&T. Kvaleberg (a little-known Norwegian engineering company) has productised its 10-years of feature phone integration know-how into Mimiria, a feature phone OS with a clean-room UI architecture that makes variant creation a swift job requiring only 2-3 engineers to customise. Myriad has announced an accelerated Dalvik implementation to speed up Android apps up to 3x, allowing those to run more comfortably in mass market designs.

3. Analytics everywhere
Another under-the-radar trend at MWC 2010 was analytics, which was making inroads into the feature set of products across the spectrum – from SIM cards and devices to network infrastructure solutions.

Application analytics is the only visible tip of of the iceberg for now, with analytics services available from Adobe, Apprupt, Bango, Distimo, Flurry (merged with PinchMedia), Localytics, Medialets, Mobclix and Motally. There is also plenty of innovation to be had here, with a startup (still in stealth mode) delivering design-time analytics on the type of applications and their use cases. Or another startup which is delivering personal TV program management, and monetising (among others) on the analytics on what TV programs users are watching, searching and sharing.

Moreover, analytics is slowly penetrating into operator networks for delivering smarter campaign management, subscriber analysis or network performance. There is a long list of vendor solutions here from Agilent, Airsage, Aito, CarrierIQ, Rewss, Umber Systems, Velocentm Wadaro and xTract among others. One related under-the-radar announcement was that from SIM manufacturer Giesecke & Devrient (G&D) who is launching a product for measuring network quality on the handset.

Taking analytic to the next level, the GSMA and comScore recently launched the Mobile Media Metrics product. This is the first census-level analytics product for measuring ad consumption and performance, starting with the UK market, which follows the lucrative business model of TV metrics.

Analytics is indeed the most underhyped trend, whose magnitude the industry will only realise in 5-10 years from now.

4. Mobile identity in the cloud
Cloud storage for personal data is ubiquitous on the Internet; Google Buzz, Facebook and Dropbox are perhaps the epitomy of this trend. The mobile industry has traditionally fallen behind, but is rapidly catching up in 2009-10 with the cloud-stored Windows Mobile UI, the social networking connectivity layer on the idle screen as seen in Microsoft’s One App, the socially-connected handsets from INQ Mobile, HTC and Motorola (Motoblur), and the 10+ solution vendors who offer addressbook syncing solutions (Colibria, Critical Path, Funambol, FusionOne, Gemalto, Miyowa, Newbay and many more).

We used to think of user data as migrating from the SIM card (the operator stronghold) to the handset (the OEM territory). Now the data is once again migrating away from the handset to the cloud, the home-turf of Internet players.

This is the next battlefield, in the landgrab to define the interfaces that determine access to our mobile identity. There are two camps competing here; the Internet players who have defined user data access standards (Google, Facebook and Twitter), versus the players who have defined mobile data access standards to date (network operators – see Vodafone 360 and handset OEMs – see Nokia Ovi).

This is one of the important battles that will determine who can reap the most profits out of user information by controlling the interfaces that connect them to the outside world (for background see Clayton Christensen’s thesis on the relationship between interfaces and profits). And it’s also what network operators should be rushing to standardise right now, in one of the last battles that will determine their smart-pipe vs bit-pipe future.

Comments welcome as always,

– Andreas