I just talked with Stephen Brewster, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He is trying to make driving and walking while talking on a mobile phone safer (and I know of a woman who drove her car off a bridge during a particularly involving conversation). His solution? Making phones recognize human gestures.
For the past couple of years, Brewster has been experimenting with HP's iPaq personal digital assistants, to which he'd added accelerometers and special software. Accelerometers are tiny devices that can discern your movements. So if you, say, lift your hand, gripping the mobile phone, the accelerometer will know that that's exactly what's happened.
Supplemented by a couple of sensors, such a phone will know when you nod. It can even recognize the letters you write out on the steering wheel in front of you, so you can text-message while watching the road.
That's great, you might say, but can't I do it all with voice recognition? Actually, no. Voice recognition doesn't work well in noisy environments. It also requires lots of computing power, which the gestures technology does not need, explains Brewster. Eventually, though, he sees the two technologies working together for our benefit.
Though the idea sounds very Sci-Fi, earlier this year, Samsung introduced the world's first cell phone with a built-in accelerometer, which can be used for scrolling: When you tilt the phone, a menu scrolls down. Most laptops' hard drives have an accelerometer built in, to protect the data in case the computer falls.
So adding the gestures capabilities might not be that expensive, Brewster argues. He recently talked about his research, currently funded by the British government, with the world's largest cell phone maker, Nokia.
Considering that lots of U.S. states are prohibiting talking on mobile phones while driving, perhaps this idea will take off. Nod to your cell phone if you agree!:-)