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Opinion

Refocus on the mobile phone
Rob Bamforth By: Rob Bamforth, Principal Analyst, Quocirca
Published: 1st April 2009
Copyright Quocirca © 2009
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One of the biggest problems for those mobile technology users who are no longer in the first flush of youth, is trying to read small lines of text or distinguish tiny graphical items on the screen. This wasn't too much of a problem when all that mobile phones displayed were monochrome phone numbers, and laptops weren't so widely used, but now the increasing use of mobile devices by users of all ages, and an increasingly rich set of media on display is making life tricky. It doesn't help that mobile phone screens are pretty limited in size to ensure the device fits in a pocket or handbag, and that smaller screen laptops—often with lower power consumption—are more in fashion.

Although an issue for the use of laptops, it is mobile phones, especially smartphones and networked PDAs, that cause the biggest problem. Even with suitable accessibility toolkits, and the ability to scale up text to larger font sizes, the problem persists, especially for those who don't wear glasses full time but still want to get maximum information and value from a quick glance at their mobile device. Pocket-able spectacles do not cut it, not for reasons to do with personal vanity, but because of the temporary and transient nature of glancing at a mobile screen. Taking glasses on and off in all the settings in which a mobile phone screen needs to be read is neither straightforward nor desirable.

However a solution is at hand from a mobile software company called BlurT. This innovative Californian-based start-up has worked out suitable visual acuity or sharpness algorithms to make details on the small mobile screen visible to those who would otherwise need some magnification. In essence, they use the individual's ophthalmic prescription and reverse it to fuzz the screen image in the opposite direction to the weakness in the viewer's eye. So the eye then sees it just fine. The technology has several patents pending around the globe and is being marketed under license using the trademark, "ReFuzz"™.

So far the technology is some way off large scale deployment, but there are a couple of significant 90 day trials which started at the end of January 2009 and are due to finish this week on the first of April. The trials have involved only two types of mobile devices, but a broad age range of mobile phone users, with differing eyesight correction needs. In addition to testing how well ReFuzz improves the legibility of the screen, the users are being surveyed about their mobile phone usage habits to see if the increase in ease of use is prompting them to use some facilities they haven't used before, or use some things more than they did previously.

In conversation with Loo Flirpa, BlurT's chief information officer, it became clear that ReFuzz can go further than simple magnification correction for reading glasses, and also perform minor astigmatism and other corrections, based on the viewer's prescription. Ultimately this may mean that many more mobile phone users of all ages will be able to participate in text based communications, such as SMS and mobile email, or access the internet on a small screen mobile phone without having to search for a pair of glasses.

At present, the prescription information has to be fed in on a per user, per device basis, but BlurT are working on a number of initiatives to make the technology easier to use and applicable on all the devices owned by any individual viewer. This they term SCaaS or Sight Correction as a Service, where the prescription information for each viewer is stored on a managed server in the cloud. This can then be securely downloaded to the mobile phone on demand and then the correction applied. This opens up the possibility of new revenue streams for mobile operators who are also sometimes straining to see how they will generate a higher ARPU (Average Revenue Per User).

Some have even suggested more bizarre uses for the technology, including for otherwise generally well sighted individuals, who are in some way suffering temporary visual impairment. One group in particular are those under the influence of drink, suffering blurred vision, and yet need to search for a taxi number to phone, or check bus or rail timetables. A simple application with one click per pint, spirit or glass of wine drunk could apply increasing levels of ReFuzz until the drunken user can see. Mobile operators could offer this as a one off pay-as-you-booze download, or perhaps more adventurous manufacturers could add it in hardware, with a breathalyser reader as a further option.

This technology is only at the start of its practical use, and there are many more ideas in sight. BlurT are considering how to get any device to recognise who has picked it up, automatically download their SCaaS prescription and then apply the correction on the fly. At the moment the ideas on the table include asking mobile device manufacturers to build-in fingerprint readers, or iris scanners, to ensure that almost as soon as the user looks at the mobile screen, it snaps into focus.

If they crack that, mobile phones really will become a sight for sore eyes. In the meantime, those building these devices and developing applications for them should remember that not everyone has perfect sight, the ability to jab at tiny buttons or clearly hear from tiny speakers, and should try to bear these factors in mind at the design stages.

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Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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