Gesture Control: Why your Next iPhone Won’t have a Touchscreen

Only 6 months or so out from the late September annual release of the iPhone, now is the time for the speculation on the features the new device will hold, to start. This year, however, Apple scuttlebutt might indicate a genuinely new direction for the company and, potentially, the industry. They are considering including Gesture Control in the 2018 iPhone.

It wouldn’t be the first time Apple has improved the user interface in technology. Jobs saw the potential in WIMP (Windows, Icons, and Mouse to move a Pointer) environments and liberated the concept from Rank Xerox. Siri was the first voice assistant on a phone – and Apple was first there, too. Apple has defined new categories – they were the first with phones that were 50% touchscreens, also a new user interface, which is now a standard for the industry. We shouldn’t be surprised they’re thinking of experimenting again.

Gesture Control

What is Gesture Control?

‘Gesture control’ (also known as ‘gesture recognition’) ties into the way humans use body language and movement to communicate information to others.

A gesture control system takes an input from an individual (typically from their hand movement or face) and uses it to direct a control system. For example, the wave of a hand over an iPhone screen might move a playlist along to the next song, or scroll a gallery to the next picture. Clicking your fingers on the screen could turn the phone off.

The concept is not unique to Apple. Samsung already has something similar in its phones and Volkswagen are building it into their cars. A number of video games have been produced which use the same inputs.

The competitive pressures Apple is facing

There could be a very good reason for this new interest in Gesture Control from Apple. They are surrounded by competitors keen to out-innovate them.

Chinese phones (from manufacturers like Oppo and Huawei) make up the vast majority of phones sold in the world. The proportion of world sales that Chinese companies contribute is rising, while Apple’s market share stays flat. In China itself, 3 out of the top 5 phone retailers outsell Apple. Apple was Apple 4th in the market by sales volume last year. Separately, but still competition for Apple to watch, Samsung is known to be ahead on its screen technology, working on evolving it’s ‘edge’ family of curved screen devices into a foldable phone option.

The challenge for Apple is clear. They need to provide features their users love and their competitors don’t, to justify the relatively high price of an iPhone.

5G could mean phone batteries last a month

In some senses, Apple’s iPhone release last year, the iPhone X had Gesture Control as its key feature. Holding one’s face in front of a phone to unlock it is a gesture. Even their 3D touch screens, (a ‘hero’ feature from the year before) was a step towards gesture control. Users were overwhelmingly unimpressed by the feature – frankly, they thought Apple could do better.

The problem is similar to this newly proposed suite of gesture recognition capabilities. The question is, what problem does Gesture Control solve? Additionally, as a facility, Gesture Control is usually a way of taking a more ‘vague’ input – a wave of a hand from a distracted driver, the clap of a pair of hands to turn a light on or of. Smartphones require more precise inputs. It’s hard to imagine, for example, typing an email with gesture controls on an iPhone.

Finally, the major issue Apple customers would like to see addressed is the product battery life. The website ‘Cult Of Mac’ conducted a survey of hundreds of iPhone users, to establish the features they’d like to see improved, or added, in new generations of Apple devices. Battery life was consistently the number 1 issue iPhone users wanted to see upgraded.

With the CEO of Verizon suggesting that the lower power requirements of 5G (superfast data download) networks, now only a year or two away, could lead to phone batteries which last a month, Apple’s time might be better spent using some of the more cutting-edge R&D work which is going on in the area to improve time between charges – something their customers definitively want, rather, perhaps than gesture control.

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