Microsoft Research has published a video of their new technology that allows a phone to sense your fingers without your fingers even touching the phone.

This technology could add many more many more possibilities for interactions on mobile devices. Mobile phones and tablets are very good at consuming content, but very weak when it comes to producing and editing content. One of the difficulties is the small amount of real estate that the screens provide the consumer. The amount is so small that anything more than a few icons and the item you are editing gets crowded out. What can not fit has to be moved into scrolling lists which block the view of what you are working on. As one can see in the video, hovering your finger over the screen provides a way for the user to discover additional interfaces to interact with what is on screen. Hovering, or the lack of, is one great interaction that mobile devices have not been able to take advantage of. The interaction is a very helpful way to provide additional feedback to the user through tooltips or exposing more information without having to tap on screen and change the view.

I think Apple has been trying to address these problems with the 3D Touch features on the iPhone 6S like the app shortcuts when you force touch on the app icon or when you use the peek and pop interactions on an item inside the app. I have heard multiple times that the hosts of some of the Apple-centric podcasts I listen to rarely ever use the gestures. I think one reason that peek and pop gestures never caught on is that they preform an action that is so similar to a tap and it doesn’t provide any additional worth to the user, so the user never takes the time to adopt the new interaction as a habit.

I think Microsoft Research is on to something. The new interactions that could happen because of hover may open the way for desktop workflows to be moved over to smaller and smaller devices.