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Microsoft takes a sideways look at touch technology

Always a pleasure to report on Microsoft doing good stuff - and this is good stuff. The company's researchers have studded the sides of a mobile phone with infra-red sensors, which can detect the presence and movement of a finger held some way away from actually touching the device.

Always a pleasure to report on Microsoft doing good stuff - and this is good stuff. The company's researchers have studded the sides of a mobile phone with infra-red sensors, which can detect the presence and movement of a finger held some way away from actually touching the device. A bit of gesture recognition software, and you can control a surprising variety of things on the phone without having to slap your bananas on the thing. The technology is called SideSight, and while it's still very very prototype the researchers say that it works better than they expected. You can do things like rotate your hands to rotate the objects on screen, or shift the 'paper' you're writing on while you scrawl away with a stylus.

So what? Well, says Microsoft, even on things as big as phones the existing touch interfaces have their problems - if you touch the screen, you're going to obscure the very thing you're trying to manipulate and this can make selecting or moving items difficult (something I find frustrating on Opera, for example, where it's hard to know when you've tapped on a link, or even if you've hit the right one).

And the current batch of touch interfaces need quite a lot of real estate on devices - something Microsoft says is harder to arrange as things get smaller. SideSight raises the possibility of adding quite capable touch interfaces to things as small as watches (let's not mention Spot) or even smaller, and embedding them into a wide variety of things that don't even look like electronic gadgets.

As always, there's no guarantee that this will pan out into something that's really useful: history is littered with clever input ideas that look promising in the labs and even make it into products, but which just don't mesh with the way people actually want to interact with their gizmos.

But if you don't try, you don't win. This is just the sort of innovation that keeps the industry alive and its inhabitants thinking - so top marks to Microsoft for making it happen and for sharing the results.

And yes, it really does feel good to say that. More, please.