Pre-Touch Sensing Wouldn’t Have Saved Windows Phone

Posted on May 9, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Windows 10, Windows Phones with 0

Pre-Touch Sensing Wouldn't Have Saved Windows Phone

If history is written by the winners, then alternate history is written by the losers. And no audience has more versions of what-could-have-been than Windows phone users. Well, you can add “pre-touch sensing” to the list of features that never would have saved Windows phone.

Pre-touch sensing has come up from time to time in these circles because it was a feature of the Lumia “McLaren,” an aborted sequel to the Lumia 1020. Windows phone fanatics point to Nokia/Microsoft’s inability to deliver McLaren and its innovative pre-touch technology as a major step backwards. But the biggest loss to that cancellation, I think, was that the 1020 was never followed up by a more powerful handset. Pre-touch sensing was never going to make a difference anyway.

Recently, yet another video has surfaced showing off the pre-touch sensing technologies we never got in McLaren. But because this one is actually official, and comes from Microsoft Research, it’s a lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Here it is.

As you can see in the video, pre-touch sensing works as its name suggests: As you move your finger towards the screen, the screen senses the incoming movement and reacts, providing a sort of multi-touch above the screen. (There’s also grip sensing on the left and right edges of the device.)


I don’t feel that pre-touch sensing would have helped McLaren—the technology was simply unready at that time—but I also have doubts about its long-term prospects. That’s because Microsoft has never done well with anticipatory technologies. Think back to Office’s intrusive Clippy, with its “it looks like you’re trying to write a letter” functionality. Or to the laughable text prediction choices we see in the firm’s various virtual keyboards. (Microsoft does better with auto-correct, which is reactive, not predictive.)

There are some neat bits in the video, of course. A media player whose on-screen controls only appear when your finger gets close to the screen is simple enough to understand. That it works differently when used single-handedly seems like smart design. But the UI is so different in each scenario that it’s probably too much to ask of users.

Regardless, any smart phone user will tell you that their phone behaves inexplicably from time to time as it is. I’ve had multiple phones, including my Lumia 930, start playing music in my pocket for no reason. And we’ve all heard of butt dialing. Would a phone with pre-touch sensing be a savant, like a precog from “Minority Report”, or would it simply appear to be possessed?

Worst of all, pre-touch sensing wouldn’t solve Windows phone’s biggest problem: Apps. That’s true of all the miracle weapons that Windows phone fans imagine will save the platform.

But I will say this: The fact that Microsoft Research is showing off this technology publicly is perhaps a hint. So pre-touch sensing could indeed appear soon, most likely as part of Windows 10. And that means it could benefit a much wider audience, and not just users of a single Lumia smart phone.


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