Multi-touch revolutionised user interfaces, and, if Nokia researchers get their way, a mobile device that's sensitive to how it's being flexed could be the next revolution.
At the Nokia World show, the Finnish mobile phone maker showed off its "Nokia kinetic device" with a flexible display. Gripped with two hands, it would scroll through music collections or photo albums when twisted. Bowing it inward or outward zoomed photos in and out, or paused and played music, while tapping the corners panned through photos.
While it was a real computing device with a real OLED display, it's most definitely not a real product that anyone could buy today. More firmly in the prototype category was a related flexible device that looked like a slim remote control; it could be controlled with a single hand.
Tapani Jokinen, who began working on the technology about two years ago as part of a Nokia group tasked with creating designs out of earlier-stage research, wouldn't say either when he thinks it'll come to market, or how it worked.
But Chris Bower, stationed nearby at Nokia's "Future Lounge", had some ideas. He was showing an experimental apparatus with a bundle of carbon nanotubes in a flexible elastomer medium. The electrical resistance of the nanotubes changes as they're stretched, and measurements of the change let a computer control how a map zoomed in and out. The same approach could be used to control the flexible interface.
Jokinen was reluctant to predict whether it might become as widespread as multi-touch user interfaces are today. But he was enthusiastic about its possibilities.
One of them was being able to operate a device "blind"; in other words, when not looking at it. You could reach into your pocket or purse to send a call to voice mail or to pause music.
A flexible phone could be instructed to take a photo when it's bent properly, he also suggested. We were sceptical, given the camera motion, but he also predicted that image stabilisation advances will take care of that problem.
Another idea is scrolling through email while walking, when it can be tough to precisely control an ordinary user interface.
And — unlike multi-touch screens — it can be operated when you're wearing gloves.
We're a bit sceptical, especially given that it requires two hands. But I could come around, especially if a one-handed device came around. And something flexible would be nice for fitting in a pants pocket, too — as long as sitting down didn't flex the phone and make it call somebody.