Improved GPS could untether VR and revolutionize geolocation

By Eric Mack

A team from the University of Texas wants to create virtual reality and augmented reality systems that can better integrate with the real world. Along the way, they just might revolutionize the geolocation systems we all use on our mobile devices.

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Two years later, Glass is on hiatus, and Humphreys’ group has a new software-based system that could improve the accuracy of the GPS enough to open up a wide array of new uses for mobile devices, virtual reality headsets, automotive navigation and perhaps even the next generation of Google Glass.

For years now, the team members have been working on harnessing what’s called carrier-phase differential GPS (CDGPS), which can be accurate down to a centimeter. Previous prototypes like the one we saw in person required a big, clunky, expensive antenna to achieve this, but now they claim to have a breakthrough software-defined GPS receiver that can attain the same level of accuracy using the cheaper antennas currently found in mobile devices.

Humphreys envisions using this technology to enable drones to deliver packages to a hyper-specific spot and to improve automotive collision systems, but his team is especially interested in merging real-time geolocation data with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, which currently does not use GPS (and is tethered to a PC), limiting it to indoor use and accuracy within only about two-to-three feet (roughly .75 meters).

“Imagine games where, rather than sit in front of a monitor and play, you are in your backyard actually running around with other players,” he says.

Humphreys and his team are now working on a specialized receiver called GRID, that extracts centimeter-level accuracy from mobile device antennas. The receiver currently operates outside the phone, but is expected to eventually run on a smartphone’s internal processor. The team has recently spun off a startup called Radiosense that is working with Samsung to develop a snap-on accessory that will provide more accurate location information for devices, including VR headsets.

Watch the demonstration video below to see the technology in action.

Sources: University of Texas, GPS World

Apple Watch review: Elegant, delightful … and completely optional

By Will Shanklin

After more than two years’ worth of rumors, the Apple Watch is finally here. As the company’s most closely-watched launch in five years, can it follow the Sasquatch-sized footprints of the iPod, iPhone and iPad?

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In terms of innovation, the Apple Watch is more like the iPod than it is the iPhone or iPad. The iPhone was (and is) Apple’s most important product. It was like nothing else before it, pulling us all into the world of mobile multitouch that we live in today, one curious shopper at a time.

Three years later, the iPad took that same interface and adapted it to a much bigger, more immersive display. At launch, both were without peers.

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But the Apple Watch? Like the iPod, it doesn’t really do much that its competitors weren’t already doing. It just squeezes it all into a smaller and more elegant package.

That analogy only goes so far, though, because the quality and design gap between the Apple Watch and the best smartwatches to come before it is much smaller than the gap between the first iPod and its clunky predecessors. Wear watches are far from perfect, but they’re infinitely better as smartwatches than the Creative Nomad and Diamond Rio ever were as MP3 players.

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The Apple Watch is a delightful smartwatch that’s a ton of fun to use. Of all the wearables we’ve handled (and we’ve handled quite a few), the Apple Watch is the most refined and human-oriented, as well as the easiest to fall in love with.

Apple squeezed its wearable tech into a smaller body than we’ve seen from any of the Android Wear or Samsung Gear watches. It’s actually the closest in size to Pebble Steel, which has a black & white, non-touch display and primitive processing power. It’s quite the feat that Apple crammed some pretty advanced tech into a casing that’s around the same size as Pebble’s barebones watch.

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The Apple Watch isn’t trying to look like a regular timekeeping watch, but the fact that it’s as small as one makes all the difference. We find this approach to work a little better than watches like the Moto 360 (above, with the Apple Watch) or Asus ZenWatch, which look a bit more like standard watches than the Apple Watch does, but are also noticeably bigger.

… and keep in mind that we’re only handling the 42 mm Apple Watch, which is the bigger model. The 38 mm model stretches that size gap between it and Android Wear watches even farther. The Apple Watch is the first smartwatch that women with smaller wrists can wear without looking like Dick Tracy’s awkward twin sister.

The Apple Watch Sport that we’re using is the entry-level model, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. Its aluminum body looks and feels smooth, and its fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) band is, somewhat paradoxically, a rubber watch strap that actually feels pretty high-end. If you were thinking about paying a few hundred bucks more for the stainless steel Apple Watch, mostly out of fear that the Sport is “the cheap one,” then don’t worry. We think this space gray Apple Watch Sport looks very sharp.

Apple is all about simplicity, so you’d expect its smartwatch software to be the simplest, right?

Well, not this time. Apple’s “Watch OS” actually has the most complex wearable interface we’ve used, with its user interface and input methods requiring a bit of a learning curve. Unlike an iPhone or iPad, this isn’t something that a child can pick up and just “get” within a minute or two.

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Though the Watch is more complex than we’d (historically speaking) expect from Apple, it’s every bit as intuitive as you’d expect. After learning the software layout and different ways of interacting with the watch (this took all of half an hour), we realized how naturally it was all laid out.

While that slight complexity the first time you put it on may be surprising to Apple Watch buyers, it also gives developers more ways for users to interact with their apps. Once everyone learns how to use the Apple Watch (trust us, it won’t take long), and developers get some time to cut their teeth on it, there’s a lot that we’ll be able to do on these tiny screens. More so than other wearable operating systems, Watch OS feels like an exciting new frontier.

That’s because the Apple Watch doesn’t rely solely on a touchscreen and a button or two. It has the touchscreen and it has two physical buttons, but it also has a second, never-before-seen way of touching your screen, known as Force Touch, along with the winding “Digital Crown” you see below.

Here’s a quick breakdown of all the different ways you can interact with the Apple Watch:

  • regular touchscreen input is still the first way of getting around: you know, taps and swipes like you’d use on any smartphone or tablet
  • pressing down farther on the touchscreen activates a “Force Click” – a secondary touch that often brings up menus or other options (also seen on Apple’s latest MacBooks)
  • pressing the Digital Crown (again, that’s the winder on the watch’s top right side) serves as a back button and shortcut to your apps screen
  • twisting the Digital Crown lets you scroll up and down lists and messages, as well as zoom in and out of your app collection and images
  • double-pressing the Digital Crown jumps to your most recent app
  • long-pressing the Digital Crown starts Siri
  • single-pressing the lower right side button jumps to a list of your favorite contacts for easy messaging
  • double-pressing that messaging button activates Apple Pay

That’s eight different input methods, all on a teeny-tiny device with only a screen and two physical buttons. So while the Apple Watch’s UI might not be the simplest from the moment you pick it up, it still does more with less than any other wearable we’ve used. Once you learn the ropes, this is the most advanced and intuitive smartwatch OS today.

The last thing to note about that learning curve is that it isn’t a chore. On the contrary, we found it to be a fun process of discovery. The first time I felt an alert “tapping” my wrist (as opposed to the motor-like buzzing you’ll find on other smartwatches) I was reminded that Apple still gets the whole human touch thing better than any other tech company.

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The Apple Watch has a gorgeous display. It isn’t alone in this respect, as rivals like the Samsung Gear S, Asus ZenWatch and LG G Watch R also have great-looking AMOLED screens (technically P-OLED for LG’s). But we would put the Apple Watch’s Retina Display at the top of that group. It has a satisfying blend of rich colors, sharpness (302 pixels per inch, which looks very crisp at a typical watch-viewing distance) and color balance.

So what do you do with an Apple Watch? The answer to that doesn’t differ much from other smartwatches. Like Android Wear and Samsung Gear, Apple’s Watch centers around things like notifications, reminders, voice control and fitness tracking. The common theme is that it’s all glanceable and easily digestible.

A smartwatch isn’t meant to be a fully immersive device. Instead, it’s something you use in short little bursts, often while you’re on the move or in the middle of doing something. It replaces the habitual whipping out of your phone.

Think of all the things you’d do on a smartphone. Now subtract all of the things that you’d also do on a tablet. What you have left should be a pretty good idea of the kinds of things that work well on a smartwatch. It’s the quick-access kinds of tasks – checking alerts, sending a quick message, looking at the forecast, getting directions, etc. – now living on your wrist.

As you might expect, the Apple Watch is launching with a much better selection of third-party apps than Android Wear or Samsung Gear’s Tizen did. In fact, Watch OS might already have a better library than those two do right now – and both of those platforms launched in early to mid-2014.

Why all the app love? Well, developers don’t have to second-guess whether the Apple Watch will sell, and they know iPhone owners aren’t afraid to spend money (as evidenced by iOS app spending). Fair or not, the Apple Watch is the first smartwatch to have a damn solid selection of apps on Day One.

Some of the early highlights include Uber (calling a car from your wrist is pretty convenient), Amazon, Philips Hue, Shazam (for some reason Android Wear still doesn’t have a song ID feature) and, if you’re into social media, Twitter.

There is, however, one big problem with running apps on the Apple Watch: most of them are slow as molasses to load. We’re talking “pick up a smartphone from four years ago and use it with today’s apps” slow. Many apps – both from Apple and third-party developers – make you stare at a loading screen for as much as five or six seconds before they start. In the world of today’s speedy mobile devices, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Once they’re loaded, they’re as zippy as they need to be. And those Glances (widgets or cards) that live below the main clock face don’t take any time to load.

Of course we can look forward to a second-generation Apple Watch that will have a faster processor. Maybe Apple will even be able to push some software updates that will help to cut down on the problem in this first-gen Watch.

But for now, app loading times can be a big annoyance in what’s otherwise a very smooth and airtight experience. Especially when you’re on the go and trying to do something quickly, you don’t want to wait five seconds to use an app (first-world problem, yes, but for a device that starts at US$350 and runs as high as $17,000, it’s disappointing).

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The Watch shows you your fitness details in a handy little graphic that, like the Watch’s software as a whole, seems complex at first glance, but then turns out to be a more economical way of doing things.

Three nested rings, with different colors, denote your progress towards your daily goals of standing time (hours in which you’ve stood for at least one minute), exercise time and calories burned. Once you learn which ring means what, it’s a more glanceable way of keeping tabs on your fitness – and one that doesn’t clutter up your screen with a bunch of numbers.

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Battery life is good, and not too far off the pace of the longest-lasting Android Wear and Samsung Gear watches. On a 16-hour day with moderate use, it usually ends the day with nearly 50 percent battery left. We recommend following Apple’s advice and charging daily no matter what, but as long as you do that, you shouldn’t have any problems.

The Apple Watch’s charging mechanism is pretty elegant (though the Moto 360’s wireless charging is still the best approach we’ve seen). Hold the Apple Watch’s magnetic charging nub near the back of the device and it will snap into place. And if that doesn’t work for you, third-party accessory makers are already churning out charging stands to hang your Apple Watch on at the end of the day.

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The Apple Watch is a new frontier in wearables, one that’s enjoyable to use on Day One and will only get better as developers continue to cut their teeth on it.

Do you need an Apple Watch? Of course not. It doesn’t do much that your smartphone won’t already do. It just does it a little more conveniently. After a decade or so full of flourishes of innovation in the mobile world – digital music players, smartphones and tablets – we’re now to the point where the latest and greatest devices don’t really change our lives so much as they remove a step or two from the process. In this case, that step is whipping out your phone.

Smartphones changed everything, putting multitouch computers in our pockets. Tablets then created a new middle-ground product that was more immersive than a phone but more handheld than a laptop. But what do wearables do? They just take all the things we’re already doing, and give us slightly easier access to them.

That has value, but it also makes sense that smartwatches have been slow to catch on. Though they’re fun, convenient and – in some cases – fashionable, they aren’t going to make an enormous difference in your life. The Apple Watch, at least right now, is no exception.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for smartwatches. First, this stuff can be fun: the joy of using a well-designed new gadget, along with a little bit of convenience, may be all the justification you need. And as the app ecosystem grows, and as connected home (“internet of things”) types of devices expand, we may actually get to the point where we “need” smartwatches – even if they’re just an expensive luxury right now.

We won’t pretend to know whether a smartwatch is a wise purchase for you today. But we can recommend the Apple Watch as the best of the current bunch, even if that lead is the smallest we’ve ever seen for a brand new Apple mobile product on Day One. Android Wear is a promising platform as well, and Samsung is going to keep trying new things with its Tizen OS. It will be fascinating to see how those rivals react now that the elephant in the room is out in the open, and strapping itself to early adopters’ wrists.

The delightful Apple Watch is available now in Apple’s online store (though it’s backordered by more than a month), starting at $350 for the 38 mm Apple Watch Sport. The 42 mm space gray Apple Watch Sport that we handled for this review costs $400. All versions require an iPhone 5 or newer to pair with it.

Product page: Apple

Rubix On makes wireless charging easier with the power of magnets

By Dave LeClair

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Wireless charging is a convenient technology, allowing users to charge their smart devices without worrying about cables. But it’s still young, and has some problems – specifically the fact that users need to line up the device with the charger correctly to get it to work. This can sometimes end up not being much easier than plugging in. That’s why the team at Rubix is developing its On wireless charger and case, which promises to make wireless charging easier thanks to magnets.

The devices use the popular Qi wireless charging standard, making it compatible with many wireless charging devices right off the bat, including the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. With those devices, users simply place their phone on the On Charger, which is powered by a 5,000 mAh battery. For users with built-in Qi charging technology, they will get a magnet-free charging experience, as the extra grip comes from the On Case.

The case, which is required for iPhone 6 since there’s no Qi charging built-in, adds a small magnetic ring that allows users to simply place their phone on the wireless charging battery and have it lock into place. This means they don’t need to think about lining the wireless chargers up properly.

Right now, the On Case portion of the system is only available for iPhone 6, though the team has stretch goals in place to bring it to iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. It’s debatable whether magnetism makes it worth using a wireless charging case on a phone that already has wireless charging built in, but at least GS6 owners will (eventually) have that option.

As a cool bonus, the backup battery can be charged either with cables or with another Qi wireless charger, giving users options for how to keep the backup battery juiced.

Rubix is seeking funding on Kickstarter to bring its On Charger and On Case to market. It’s still early in its funding period, and is seeking US$100,000. Backers interested in just an On Charger can preorder one for a minimum pledge of $59, and backers who want an iPhone 6 On Case and an On Charger need to pledge $89. If the goal is met, the team plans to deliver in August of 2015.

Source: Rubix, Kickstarter

Smartphone microscope lens that costs just pennies to make

By Colin Jeffrey

Microscopes can be expensive pieces of gear, making access difficult – or non-existent – for students and medical staff in isolated and poorer locales. To help address this, researchers at the University of Houston (UH) have fashioned a lens designed to fit on almost any smartphone. It has the ability to magnify images up to 120 times their original size, and at an estimated production cost of just three cents per lens.

Standard lenses are generally made by polishing glass or molding plastics to create a particular focal length and magnification. The UH lenses, however, are composed of a polymer known as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), and are made by dropping this liquid onto a pre-warmed surface to cure. Unlike conventional lens construction, the lens curvature is not then formed or created mechnically, but is dependent upon the length of time the lens is cured and at what temperature. The lenses produced in this way are said to be supple, somewhat like a soft contact lens.

Like many discoveries, Wei-Chuan Shih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH, realized the optical properties of PDMS largely by accident. When, in his work in an interdisciplinary team working on nanobiophotonics and nanofluidics, he dropped some of the material on a lab hotplate, he noticed that it solidified on contact with the hot surface. This piqued his interest in the resultant properties of the material and so he decided to attempt making a lens.

“I put it on my phone, and it turns out it works,” says Yu-Lung Sung, a doctoral candidate and one of the research team at UH, using the lens on his Nokia Lumia 520.”

To prove the efficacy of their lens, the researchers took images of epithelial tissue – in this case a skin-hair follicle mounted on a histological slide – using both the PDMS lens mounted on a smartphone and an Olympus IX-70 microscope. According to the researchers, at a 120-times magnification, the performance of the new smartphone lens was comparable to that of the Olympus microscope operating at 100-times magnification. The researchers believe that the capabilities of the PDMS lens could be further improved by utilizing software to digitally magnify and enhance the images.

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“Our lens can transform a smartphone camera into a microscope by simply attaching the lens without any supporting attachments or mechanism,” say the researchers. “The strong, yet non-permanent adhesion between PDMS and glass allows the lens to be easily detached after use. An imaging resolution of 1 (micrometer) with an optical magnification of 120X has been achieved.”

The UH lens is not the first stick-on smartphone microscope lens, with a low-magnification polymer lens known as the “Micro Phone Lens” launching via Kickstarter in 2013. In fact, the UH lens is not even the first to use PDMS – a similar lens was developed by researchers at the Australian National University (ANU), but the technique incorporated in the UH unit differs from both of these and may offer manufacturing advantages.

In the ANU lens, for example, the polymer is manipulated in a two-step combination process, whereas the UH system is performed in just one application of the polymer. This may be a significant point of economic viability, especially if units are to be manufactured on a large scale.

“A microscope is much more versatile, but of course, much more expensive,” says Sung. “Nearly everyone has a smartphone. Instead of using a $30 or $50 attachment that students might use only once or twice, they could use this.”

The results of the team’s research were recently published in the Journal of Biomedical Optics.

The short video below shows the lens in real world use.

Source: University of Houston

LG G4 vs. iPhone 6 Plus

By Will Shanklin

The LG G4 is a phablet that can almost pass for a “regular”-sized smartphone. Let’s see how its features and specs compare to those of the iPhone 6 Plus.

Size

This is what we mean by the G4 almost passing for a standard smartphone, as it’s 6 percent shorter and 3 percent narrower than the iPhone 6 Plus – despite both having 5.5-in screens.

The G4 is 38 percent thicker, though that number is a little exaggerated, since the G4 has a rounded back (measuring only its thickest point) while the iPhone’s thickness is uniform.

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Weight

Thanks (mostly) to that smaller size, the G4 is also 10 percent lighter than the iPhone 6 Plus.

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Build

There are two versions of the G4: one with a leather back, another made of plastic.

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Colors

Within each of those build categories; LG gives you two color options to choose from.

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Display (size)

Both handsets have 5.5-in screens.

Display (resolution)

The G4 gives you a much sharper picture, with its Quad HD resolution.

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Display (type)

Both phones have IPS display panels.

Fingerprint sensor

The iPhone uses Apple’s excellent Touch ID fingerprint sensor, for securing your phone, logging into supported third-party apps and using Apple Pay.

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Camera megapixels (rear)

The G4’s rear camera has the higher resolution, but that won’t necessarily make it a better camera. Stay tuned on this front.

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Camera megapixels (front)

The difference in pixels here is huge, though, so it’s probably a safe bet that you’ll take better-looking selfies on the G4.

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Camera aperture

The G4’s rear camera also has a wider aperture, which is often a good hint that it will fare well in low-lit conditions.

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OIS

Both handsets also have Optical Image Stabilization for their rear cameras.

Laser autofocus

The G4 brings back one of our favorite features from the LG G3, its laser-based autofocus. It quickly and automatically measures the distance between camera and subject, and (almost immediately) takes a shot with that part in focus. On the user end, it’s as simple as tapping the point on the screen where the subject is.

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Battery

The G4 has the higher-capacity battery but, similar to camera resolution, we won’t know if that means anything until we put it through the paces. Stay tuned.

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Removable battery

The G4 does have the perk of letting you swap its battery on the go, a quality that’s becoming increasingly rare in Android phones.

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Storage

There’s no internal storage decision for G4 buyers, as 32 GB is your only option.

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MicroSD

The G4 does, however, have a microSD card slot.

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RAM

The G4 triples the iPhone’s RAM.

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Processor

On paper, the iPhone’s core count and clock speed looks dated by at least two or three generations. But that’s a little deceiving, as Apple’s mobile chips typically far outperform what you’d expect from their processor specs.

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Software

The G4 has Android Lollipop at its core, with an LG custom UI on top of that. The iPhone 6 Plus runs iOS 8.

Release

The G4 has yet to launch in the US (and we don’t yet have a firm release date on that), but it’s already available in South Korea.

The latest iPhones launched last September, so we could be about four months away from Apple’s next batch.

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Starting price (full retail)

We still don’t know what the G4 will cost outside of Korea.

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Starting price (on-contract)

That includes on-contract pricing as well.

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Source: Gizmag

“Acoustruments” could add physical controls to smartphones – using nothing but a plastic tube

Source: Gizmag

While the touchscreen is perhaps the most versatile input method ever created, it’s not ideal for every situation, offering little in the way of tangible physical controls. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research have put their minds to the problem, creating a series of accessories, known as Acoustruments, which take inspiration from wind instruments to make smartphone interaction more physical – without any Bluetooth or wired connections.

At the heart of the team’s imaginative new control method is one simple, clever concept. The accessory, which takes to form of flexible plastic tubing, connects a smartphone’s speaker to its microphone, with the former emitting continuous sweeps of ultrasonic frequencies that are monitored by the latter. Any action that alters the acoustic frequency, such as changing the length or diameter of the plastic tubes, or blocking holes, can trigger a software action on the smartphone.

The plastic tubing is designed to limit external noise interference, and the emitted ultrasonic frequencies are inaudible to the human ear. Experiments carried out by the institutions showed the control method to be impressively precise – achieving an accuracy of 99 percent when controlling a smartphone.

Any action that alters the acoustic frequency – such as changing the length or diameter of...

The researchers have already created some interesting examples of potential uses for the Acoustruments. These include an alarm clock that provides the user with a physical on/off switch and snooze button, as well as an interactive doll with an on-screen face that reacts when you poke its stomach.

Of course just about anything that could be done here could also be done with accessories that connect via Bluetooth or data transfer ports. But the lack of electrical circuitry in the Acoustruments makes them inexpensive to manufacture, and they can be made using 3D printers, injection molds, and potentially even by hand.

While this is clearly a niche technology, the researchers believe the tech could be useful in cases where the user doesn’t want to, or can’t look at the touchscreen, with the physical controls being useable at a glance. They highlight smartphone-powered virtual reality headsets as a product category that could benefit from the technology, where users are physically unable to interact with a touchscreen interface.