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I admit it. I really wanted one. So much so that I was one of those half-crazy people trolling for treasures before dawn the day after Thanksgiving last year. "You don't have any left, do you?" I asked meekly, convinced my request would be met with uproarious laughter and public ridicule. "Actually, two," mumbled the sleep-deprived store worker. "But that man is buying one right now."

Arms outstretched, I quickly slid toward the lone, sleek white box with ethereal gray lettering and grabbed hold. I got it. I got it!

When the gift wrap was torn apart in chaos weeks later, the eager hands held that white box just as tightly as I had. "Wii!," three children and one husband exclaimed gleefully. It's been in near constant use ever since. Not just by immediate family, but grandparents, toddlers, teenagers. Anyone who gets their hands on it wants to keep playing. (I admit to having a sore shoulder after taking a game of tennis a tad too competitively.)

A big part of the attraction of Nintendo's crazily popular video game, introduced a year and a half ago, is the system's motion-sensitive controllers. Rather than the thumb aerobics required of competing game systems, the Wii demands a more physical interaction. To play a game on the Wii the player has to move the console in such a way as to mimic real-life movements. For instance, in bowling, the remote is held, raised up, swung backward and finally swung upward, much like a bowler would move an actual bowling ball. And just like if your wrist tends to twist slightly at the release at the actual lanes, your ball is going to curve toward the gutter in Wii world, too. If you swing the remote a millisecond too late when playing baseball, you're going to get a strike, and if you're too strong with your golf swing, your golfball will land in a sand trap. Unlike the spectacular graphics of its peers, Wii's art and movements are simple and universal.

The Wii uses a wireless, Bluetooth-enabled battery-operated remote control unit that has motion-sensing ability. Meanwhile, the sensor bar that sits atop the television has 10 infrared LEDs spaced along the bar. Using accelerometer and optical sensor technology inside the remote, and tapping into Bluetooth, the motion is detected. The remote control unit reads the movement's distance from the different lights on the bar, and then that motion is calculated through triangulation. Industry experts say it is the accelerometer that contributes most to the Wii's $250 price tag, which while costly is not as expensive as other gaming systems.

Likewise, even in an unstable economy, another high-priced gadget that caught consumers' interests and landed on their wish lists this past holiday season was Apple's iTouch. The mobile device's multi-touch technology had consumers buzzing and willing to spend nearly $500 before a price cut was announced.

Such innovative interfaces, like the Wii's motion-sensitive controller, help to break down the barriers between man and machine, say analysts, and help to fire up application developers.

These two devices are just two examples of renewed enthusiasm being pumped back into the consumer tech sector. Why? It's in the interface.

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Games People Play

Even venerable cable news channel CNN is not immune to the charms of an innovative interface. Watching "The Situation Room" during election coverage you'd think star reporter John King was as enamored of the multi-touch presentation screen as my family has been of the Wii. King could be seen narrowing in on a graphic with a pinching motion of his fingers, moving over delegate territory with a wave of his hand, making the colored map come to life. CNN might have called it "The Magic Wall" when it debuted in January during the Iowa caucuses, but readers of this magazine know it as multi-touch, which is credited to Jeff Han and a handful of companies for its development and evolution.

The influence of innovative interfaces on the wireless industry has been increasing for a while. Consider GestureTek, for instance. The Sunnyvale, CA-based company has taken its video gesture recognition patents and partnerships with gaming—Microsoft and Sony licensed their technology for Xbox and PlayStation respectively—and applied the technology to mobile devices and applications. The bridge between gaming and mobile devices comes because GestureTek's technology works with cameras, and most mobile devices have cameras installed. Deals with NTT DoCoMo and Verizon have helped to put GestureTek on the mobile map two years ago, even though they've been around for 20 years.

"It's disruptive technology," says Ed Fowler, director of business development at GestureTek, of the video gesture technology. "People see it once, and they get it." Fowler says that since wireless operators are drooling at opportunities to keep customers connected more, downloading more bits, the lure of fusing gaming components and smooth interfaces with mobility is enticing.

With its technology inside, GestureTek sees the phone of the near future being shaken or rolled slightly, like a gaming console, so users can quickly bring up information needed. There are also commercial applications that make sense, like navigation. But the ease of use of this type of interface could have social uses as well, says Fowler. An elderly person living alone, for instance, could shake their mobile phone once to dial 911, or could do physical therapy for their arms using their mobile device, Fowler says. The technology is also enabling digital signage, or interactive billboards.

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Can't Touch This

Apple's aggressive acceptance of multi-touch shows no signs of waning. In fact, recent reports say a next generation of the iPhone, bigger in size but still smaller than a laptop, will come out next year with even more multi-touch functionality. Fowler adds that more tablet devices with shake and roll capabilities are in product development. Blackberry, too, looks like it will undergo an interface change. Industry reports say the device might go one better than the multi-touch with a "multi-pressure" touch screen makeover, due out next year. Meanwhile, also raising the interface bar, Microsoft filed a patent in October last year for "extensive filtered lists for mobile device user interfaces," where selected data and service provided by multiple software applications can be accessed through a group or list of items, according to reports.

Such innovative interfaces, like the Wii's motion-sensitive controller, help to break down the barriers between man and machine, say analysts, and help to fire up application developers. The act of scrolling through a hierarchy of menus is considered an outdated way to get information. Interface innovation, as exemplified by the iPhone, has positively influenced sales of mobile devices. The number of mobile phones sold in the U.S. increased 16% from the second to the third quarter of 2007, to the tune of $3.2 billion, according to NPD Group. Smartphones, specifically, saw a 163% increase year over year, the research firm said. The iPhone helped to bridge the gap between traditional phones and more business-oriented phones, the firm adds. By the end of January 2008, there were some 4 million iPhones sold, according to reports.

As the Consumer Electronics Show in January showcased, competitors aren't letting Apple do all the touching. Sleek devices, including universal remotes, got the multi-touch treatment. HTC Touch, Verizon's LG Venus (at $200) and Voyager to name a few have added to the realm of devices with these touchy-feely interfaces at price breaks. Devices like these helped sell 1.14 billion phones last year, up 12% from the previous year, according to reports.

At the 3GSM Mobile World Congress held in mid-February in Barcelona, industry bigwigs, like Arun Sarin, CEO of colossal carrier Vodafone, paid homage to Apple's influential interface. During his keynote speech at the show, Sarin told the audience to keep it simple and advised for a slash in operating systems. "The simpler we make it, the more we sell," Sarin says on a video blog on Vodafone's Web site (captured by a camera phone, by the way) taken just after the speech.

Once user-friendly fronts become the norm in mobile devices, operators will still have work to do. While the "Internet on the mobile is really beginning to happen," Sarin says, operators must innovate so they are not relegated to just becoming "bit pipes." He advised operators to consolidate the number of operating systems that are used, according to reports. His own company counts between 30 to 40 operating systems up and running on its network right now and he suggests the number be reduced to five or under, say reports. With fewer operating systems, developers can create more compelling applications to help drive usage.

Even as market watchers say eventually the number of operating systems will dwindle, increased interest in the OS space has drawn big names. Last fall Internet behemoth Google unveiled Android, its mobile operating system. The Linux-based mobile software solution is designed under the Open Handset Alliance. Other players in this area include Symbian, Linux, and Microsoft Windows Mobile.

While operating systems duke it out, the conference showed that content remains a key issue. That this year's show got some star power when movie mogul Robert Redford and actress Isabella Rossellini attended only underscores the importance of forging deeper relationships with the music and video industries to the mobile world.

Even with the voluminous expansion of content and move toward streamlining operating systems, with increasingly innovative interfaces becoming so addictive, it looks like whatever wireless brings us, getting there will be half the fun.

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Meg McGinity Shannon ( is a technology writer based on Long Island, NY.

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©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0500  $5.00

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