Microsoft Research project tackles mobile touch-screen problems

Shift technology uses a finger rather than a stylus

SEATTLE -- A computer science student and a developer at Microsoft Research have created a technique designed to make it easier to select items on a mobile-phone screen with a finger rather than a pointed stylus.

The development comes just before Apple Inc.'s much-anticipated iPhone, with its touch screen, hits the market in June.

The Microsoft Research project, called Shift, automatically displays an image on the screen above where a users places his finger showing the area under the user's finger. The image is circular and includes a small "X." By toggling the tip of his finger, a user can move the X to place it on top of the item he wants to choose. Lifting the finger from the screen selects the item.

Daniel Vogel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, and Patrick Baudisch, a scientist at Microsoft Research, developed the technology to solve several problems with mobile-phone touch screens. Many such screens are designed to be used with a stylus, which can be cumbersome to use, particularly with just one hand. In addition, programs that are designed to be used with a stylus may feature small icons that are difficult to select with a fingertip, the researchers said.

Shift builds on technology already developed known as Offset Cursor. Offset Cursor displays a cursor just above the spot a user touches on the screen. That allows users to place their fingers below the items they want to choose so that they can see the items rather than hiding them with their fingers.

Vogel and Baudisch said Offset Cursor has drawbacks, particularly for users trying to choose an icon near the edge of the screen. Because Offset Cursor displays the cursor above the finger, it can't be used to choose icons at the bottom of the screen.

Shift only displays the image when necessary, so if a user touches a large item, Shift doesn't pop up the circular image.

Vogel and Baudisch published a paper (download PDF) about Shift at the Computer Human Interaction Conference earlier this month. They also created a short video (download file) with a demonstration of how Shift works.

Technologies developed at Microsoft Research don't necessarily become products that the company sells. The group, which has 700 researchers in five laboratories around the world and often collaborates with university researchers, works on a wide range of products. It may work with other groups at Microsoft to incorporate their developments into products, or it may sell technology to external organizations.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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