The Promise of Back-of-Device Interaction


When it comes to mobile devices and their displays, hardware makers tend to pay a lot of attention to the interface found on the front, but very little to what’s on the back. Some notable new research milestones could change that, however.

Some of the milestones come from Patrick Baudisch, who’s spent years integrating back-of-device user interface interaction into mobile gadgets. Baudisch’s latest effort is called Nano Touch, which as you can see in the video below, allows for touch-based interface input on the rear of a small device — as opposed to on the front display. This brings two benefits: One, it expands the total amount of device real estate that the user can interact with; and two, the user’s own fingers doesn’t have to occlude the display while input is taking place.

According to Baudisch’s research page for the Nano Touch project, this back-of-device interaction would be especially applicable for very small devices, including touch-capable electronic jewelry.

Baudisch isn’t the only researcher who sees the value of a backdoor. This weekend at the Siggraph Asia show in Yokohama, Japan, MIT researchers will demo a prototype of their hand gesture recognition technology for liquid crystal displays (LCDs). It works by integrating a layer of sensors on the reverse side of a display. The sensors take regular snapshots of hand movements made in front of the display to generate a 3-D model, which is then translated into directions by the device. A video of how this works is below:

If efforts to imbue the reverse side of devices and displays with user interface options succeed, they could have a profound impact on mobile applications. Mobile browsers, for example, could include off-screen elements and controls that could be accessed from the rear of a device without disrupting work going up front. That’s called making the most of your mobile gadget.

Image courtesy of Patrick Baudisch.


donnacha | WordSkill

Back-of-Device interaction is such a perfect fit for tablets, it would be almost crazy to launch a tablet without it.

If you pick up a small paperback, which approximates the 10″ display size of the rumored Apple tablet, and cradle it with your fingers to the back and your thumbs to the front, it is clear that your fingers have as much space as they would on their respective halves of a regular Apple keyboard.

That holding position is comfortable for typing and, by retaining the QWERTY layout – you’re essentially just flipping each half of the keyboard on its side – it would not take users too long to adapt, and it would not be confusing to transition back and forth between your tablet and regular keyboards.

When I first became aware of this technology, tablets suddenly made a lot more sense to me. Now I can see how I could spend an entire plane journey typing at high speeds without have to cram a laptop onto my tray, without having to lean forward uncomfortably. I can see how I could be productive while sitting back in an armchair at Starbucks or in my den.

Previously, I presumed that tablet users who wanted to get real work done would have to find some way to prop up their tablet and then find a surface to rest their Bluetooth keyboard accessory upon. A Back-of-Device keyboard is a far, far better solution, far more convenient and manageable, it is exactly the clever twist that was needed to make tablets truly useful.

In ergonomic terms, it makes a lot more sense to be able to sit back and to re-position your arms as much as you want, holding the tablet wherever you want, rather than forcing your body to lean forward and tap your fingers in exactly the same place for hours on end, as we do with regular keyboards and fixed-position monitors – we are accustomed to it but it is, undeniably, punishing to our bodies.

Honestly, I think Back-of-Device touch keyboards for tablets could be a true break-through, something we’ll all be using within a couple of years, to get more done, in more places than laptops ever could.

I wonder if Microsoft would even consider licensing this technology to Apple?


Why? Other then flip style devices, they will be bigger. The guts of things are placed behind screens. I can see a few uses, but from the UI stand point is counter-intuitive.

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