Microsoft’s Fight Against Fat Fingers

At Microsoft, they call it “the fat finger problem.”

Chubby digits make it tough to work the screens on computing devices, which seem to get smaller every year. Your finger bumbles about, often covering up the very information that you’re trying to see.

Researchers at Microsoft think they’ve come up with a way to solve the fat-finger issue by letting people manipulate the back of a device with their finger while still looking at the front screen. It’s a project called Nanotouch and was one of many that Microsoft had on display this week at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash., during the TechFest event.

An early incarnation of the nanotouch technology could have people shuffling through songs on their cellphone or selecting contacts while touching the back of the device, where sensors follow the fingers’ movements. Patrick Baudisch, a Microsoft researcher, said this could be especially useful with games where you want to shuffle a character or object around the screen without your hands getting in the way of the action.

But the real motivation behind the technology is to pave the way for smaller and smaller devices that remain functional. Mr. Baudisch envisions women pinning electronic baubles onto their clothes to handle things like appointments instead of carrying along a proper calendar or phone.

“In my vision, you move away from always having something in your pocket,” Mr. Baudisch said. “You want things that allow for fashionable outfits and that blend into the clothes.”

Microsoft can make 8mm screens that are still functional with this technology, and the company expects unpredictable uses for its wares.

“We feel the cellphone is not the end-all, be-all of miniaturization,” Mr. Baudisch said.

A number of Microsoft’s researchers have work under way exploring new interfaces between man and machine.

For a while now, Microsoft has demonstrated its Surface computer, which allows people to manipulate objects on a tabletop computer. Such a product could be used in a restaurant to let people shuffle through menus and even place their credit cards on the screen to make their payments. At home, you could use a Surface computer for games or to flick through music and movies.

Now, Microsoft is looking to extend the Surface concept by pulling objects off the screen through a project called Second Light.

The technology behind Second Light is a bit tricky, but Microsoft is essentially sending two different sets of images from a projector up through the Surface display. The display on the device is configured to pick up one image. Then you can hold something as simple as a piece of paper in the air over the device to gather the second image.

According to Steve Hodges, another Microsoft researcher, doctors could use this type of technology for cancer detection. They could, for example, display a 3-D image of a breast scan on the tabletop display and then pull out parts of the scan via the secondary display, changing the angles of the image to look for tough-to-spot tumors.

“This is bringing the user interface into the real world,” Mr. Hodges said.

Again, the mind boggles at possible gaming applications for the technology where people could be doing one thing on their own screens while also having a shared vision of the game on the central, tabletop display.

One technology that’s probably closer to reaching consumers is the Commute UX software.

Microsoft has already worked with Ford on in-car software for handling some communications and media tasks, but the company says it can spice up this type of software by adding new layers of sophistication.

The prototype software has, for example, added more smarts to its voice recognition. If you say, ‘Play Bruce Springsteen,’ the software can ascertain that you’re probably talking about an artist rather than a song. The upshot is that you don’t have to remember the name of every song stored inside your car to play it via voice. The software will help you with some of the dirty work.

In addition, the software can pick up incoming messages sent to your cellphone, read them aloud and fire back a response. Microsoft has studied the most common responses to messages sent while people are driving -– usually stuff like, ‘I’m running late’ or ‘Be there in five minutes’ — and will present you with common, easy replies, so that you can stay focused on driving.

Microsoft has moved to create a digital copy of car manuals as well, which people can again navigate by voice. If you ask about how to install a car seat, the display will present a how-to video.

One last demonstration showed off technology that could add some smarts to cellphones.

People could point their phone camera at, say, a restaurant and receive its menu or aim it at a bus stop and receive an interactive route planner.

Despite the recession, Microsoft intends to keep investing billions into research and development efforts. The company is part of an ever-shrinking number of technology titans willing to finance a wide array of projects that may or may not pan out.