The mobile user interface is set for a range of changes in the next 12-24 months, creating new modes for users to interact with their devices, and with other devices nearby and network-based services.
Touch will be improved through higher screen resolutions, brighter screens, the start of tactile feedback (haptics) when you press a button. Users will "recognize" onscreen objects and content faster and interact more accurately and faster, says Paul Erickson, an analysts with IMS Research, Austin Texas, who recently released the "Next Gen User Interface Report."
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These changes will make touch much more accurate for users, says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile at Gartner. "The problem is that you sometimes touch 'in between' and greater accuracy can determine what you meant to press," he says. "Also, better algorithms would help you be sure you see the character you meant to press."
Touch today is mainly individual presses to buttons or areas on the screen, with some limited gestures, such as swiping a finger to scroll or pan the display. But gestures will expand, in two ways. In one change, touch-screen gestures will become a continuous movement of one or more fingers on the screen. Swype, a company acquired by Nuance, lets you press a finger to a keyboard and slide it from a one letter to another to spell words in a text message. A predictive algorithm figures out which letters to include and which to ignore.
A second type of gesture support eventually will make use of mobile device cameras to recognize and interpret a range of physical motions by the user. The basic technology appears in products like Microsoft Kinect, released a year ago as a $150 add-on for its Xbox gaming consoles: Users can flick through menus by waving their hands, for example. Microsoft now plans to introduce it for Windows PCs, and last year bought Canesta, which designs chips that work with a device's digital camera to let the device "see" in three dimensions.
The user's voice interaction with a mobile device also will continue to improve and expand. Apple's Siri, a "voice assistant" introduced with iOS 5 for the iPhone 4S, gives a wide range of voice-activated control and management features (Android and Windows Phone have their own capabilities or apps for similar tasks).
But Apple gave Siri a "personality," which "gives the interaction a softer, humorous feel," says Matt Revis, vice president of product marketing and management for Nuance's mobile group. The original Siri, later acquired by Apple, used the Nuance voice engine. Nuance also offers Dragon Go!, an iPhone app that enables Internet searching by voice.
"We'll see more evolved voice control in 2012, with more natural language and sentence structure from the non-Apple platforms," says IMS analyst Paul Erickson. Voice and touch are complementary, he says, and the mobile user interface will develop to include a mix of different technologies.
Gartner recently identified "mobile-centric applications and interfaces" as one of its "Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends" for 2012. This a bundle of technologies, including the short-range wireless Near Field Communications (NFC), which Gartner sees as making possible a range of "touch to act" uses. One example, cited in a presentation by Gartner analyst David Cearley, is a hotel sending an electronic key to a smartphone, which then becomes the guest's room key: He can simply wave the phone at the door handle, and the NFC connection makes it possible to verify the guest and unlock the door.
This interaction points the way to a future mobile interface that uses awareness of the users' "context" -- identity, their online affiliations through various social networks, their location, the time of day, preferences, and nearby devices or online services that users might be interested in, or have need of.
"A contextually aware systems anticipates the user's needs, and proactively serves up the most appropriate and customized content, product or service," Cearley wrote.