By Michael Fisher | June 28, 2012 8:29 AM
Gestures in the smartphone world are nothing new, and neither is our commentary on them. Jaime Rivera wrote an iOS-focused editorial about the future of gestures in smartphone interfaces over a year ago, and last spring, Joe Levi took us on a brief video tour of third-party Android apps making use of gesture-based controls. Since I joined the team, Pocketnow has featured some more mentions of the late, great webOS, which featured generous use of non-button-based input.
Indeed, Samsung seemed to take notice of webOS when crafting its new Galaxy S III. The world’s top handset maker incorporated many of the same touches Palm included on its deceased Pre line, like rounded, pebble-inspired casing design, inductive charging, and an interface heavily reliant on gestures. Samsung didn’t agree with my stance on the uselessness of the home button, but that’s okay; most of you didn’t, either.
The newest TouchWiz version, which Samsung calls “Nature UX,” includes a lot of gesture and motion-based interactions that make the experience of using the Galaxy S III unlike that of any other Android phone. I’ve done my best to put most of them to the test in my time with both the international and Sprint versions of the device, and I’ve organized some into a list for your reading enjoyment. This list is by no means comprehensive, and you may question my decision to lump some of these features under the “gestures” umbrella, but hey- that’s what the comments section is for. Let’s get shaking.
Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs
Easily accessed under its own dedicated section of the Settings menu, the Galaxy S III’s suite of motion-based controls is extensive. By default, many of these features are disabled, which I thought was a curious choice by Samsung. They’re among the most unique features of the phone, so one would think the company would want to showcase them. Then again, each feature has its own helpful tutorial screen -something of a Samsung trademark- so once a user finds them, at least they’re well explained. I’ve chosen a few standouts from this section.
- Direct Call. One of the highlight features I called out on the day of the Galaxy S III’s announcement, this is the feature that lets you turn a lengthy text message exchange into a voice call, just by raising your phone to your ear while the message thread is displayed. A short buzz of the vibration motor later, your call is going through. Don’t do this to me, though.
- Turn Over To Mute/Pause. No matter what custom ringtone you’re rocking, it gets annoying on those days your phone is ringing off the hook because no one reads your anti-voice-call manifestos on the internet. And fidgeting for the volume rocker to silence that ringer is (apparently) too much for some people. With this feature enabled, simply turning the phone over onto its face will silence the ringer or message alert tone. It will also pause media you’re playing.
- Tilt To Zoom. This odd little feature allows you to forego pinching and double-tapping to zoom in the Gallery or Browser applications, instead requiring an input that’s really no more convenient: you tap and hold at two points on the screen simultaneously and tilt the device back and forth to zoom in or out. It reminds me of a similar feature included on Sprint’s iPhone-aping Samsung Instinct back in the days when feature phones could still rank as best-sellers. While it was a solid differentiator then, it’s not terribly useful now. I still think of it -and its cousin, “pan to browse images”- as a gimmick, but it’s fun to play with.
- Tap To Top. This feature presumably exists to close one of the few remaining functionality gaps between Android and iOS: the feature that allows you to tap the top of the screen to jump to the top of a list. In the Samsung implementation, it’s triggered by a double-tap on the top of the phone casing (not the screen; this is an accelerometer-based input). Initially, I thought this feature was broken on my device, but then I realized you really need to whack the phone to get it to register. In addition to requiring you to beat up your device, this feature only works in the Email and Contacts applications. Thus, it too is relegated to gimmick territory for the moment.
To and Fros, Back and Forths
For some time, the Android platform has served as a testing ground for some really impressive innovation as far as lock screens are concerned. Slide-to-unlock isn’t even meeting the bare minimum for usability anymore, especially in a world where the hardware camera key has become an endangered species. Screen locking is of course essential in a landscape dominated by open-faced smartphones, but equally pressing is the need to launch the camera app quickly. That cumulus cloud that looks like a whale wearing a ballcap isn’t going to hang around forever, you know.
iOS and stock Android each feature a dedicated software button on the lock screen to deal with this, and skins like HTC Sense allow a camera shortcut to be placed on the lock screen should you desire it. TouchWiz does this too, but Samsung has also built in a much more fun launch action in the Galaxy S III. In portrait mode, pressing and holding a thumb on the lock screen while rotating the device to landscape orientation will launch the camera. In my testing, it’s worked pretty reliably, and it’s much cooler than just dragging an icon across the screen. The combination of the tap-and-hold action with the device rotation is part Minority Report, part James Bond. Unless you take a lot of photos in portrait, you’ll probably love it.
Screen capture is something that’s been confined to the geek world for most of its existence. For a long time, not many people outside the tech world had reason to capture their screen images. That’s different now, of course; most of us store a good portion of our lives, personal and business, on our smartphones. When someone sends us a message that’s sweet, inflammatory, important, or hilarious, we want to be able to keep a copy outside of the messaging application without the hassle of the clipboard. Plus, screengrabs look way better on Texts From Last Night.
Normally, this is accomplished by a double key-press: iOS devices will snap a screenshot when the home and lock keys are depressed, and post-ICS Android phones deliver the same results with lock+volume down. Samsung takes a page from Apple’s book with the Galaxy S III, offering screengrabs with a combined press of the home key and lock button, but it also provides a far more imaginative option. Placing an open hand against the edge of the screen and swiping across the display to the other side will take a screenshot, with the usual shutter sound accompanied by a bright, photocopy-like scan animation traversing the screen. It’s no more useful than the button combination, really, and it’s actually a little cumbersome if you’re in a scrollable list- but when one of Samsung’s designers pointed the feature out to me at the NYC launch event, I couldn’t hide my excitement.
Like most of the features on this list, it’s not strictly necessary, and it will go unnoticed by a lot of people. But we users have spent far too long under the yoke of the button-and-knob lobby. We all carry incredibly advanced software in our pockets; there are more fun, more organic ways to interact with it than clumsily poking at it with extended fingertips. Incorporating more elegant input methods like those listed above is the kind of extra care, the sort of attention to detail, that keeps smartphones futuristic and fun. And it helps provide the pizazz that makes category-topping flagship products like the Galaxy S III stand out from the pack.
What’s your favorite unconventional interface, on the Galaxy S III or otherwise? Got more tips on the best way to put some of TouchWiz’ gestures to use? Let us know in the comments below!