Back to the Future - Morse Code and Cellular Phones

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Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 8:55 AM
Subject: [TRAC] Back to the Future - Morse Code and Cellular Phones

Back to the Future - Morse Code and Cellular Phones
Brian McConnell

I've spent most of the past five or so years thinking about handheld devices, their limitations and how to work around them. Having worked with telephones since I was in high school, this has been something of an obsession.

The hot trend today is to cram every feature imaginable into mobile telephone handsets. This has led to some cool things like camera phones, mobile gaming, and such. The problem is that a lot of designers overlook some basic limitations in these devices, and more importantly, the situations in which people use them.

Cellular phones are all about mobility. Good mobility applications recognize that the user is often in motion (walking, driving, etc). Safety and convenience require that the application should demand as little visual attention as possible. Badly designed applications force the user to stare at the telephone's display instead of paying attention to surrounding environs. This is why speech user interfaces work so well for mobile users. They allow the user to interact with a service in a "heads up" stance, without looking at the phone. Unfortunately, most mobile applications are of the badly designed "let's take a PC interface and shrink it down" category.

Text messaging is an enormously popular service, but it too suffers from this basic user interface conflict. Sending and receiving text messages requires the user to look at the display. Receiving messages can be done at a glance, so this is not such a burden. Sending them is another story. Some people are adept at tapping messages on numeric keypads, but doing so requires the user to pay attention to the display. Try writing a text message without looking at the phone. Not easy.


Morse Code, or a derivative of it, could be one way to solve this problem. With Morse Code, one could tap text messages out without looking at the telephone, and without having to fumble with ever smaller keypads. I'll admit that the idea of resurrecting Morse Code seems improbable, but then it's worth remembering that only a few years ago, the idea of people typing with their thumbs also seemed absurd.

How might Morse be incorporated into a telephone handset. I sketched out a fairly simple interface. Here's what I came up with.

The telephone would have a fairly large pressure sensitive panel on its back side, big enough that you would not have to look at the phone to locate it. It might also be possible to use the telephone's existing microphone to sense taps (although discriminating between short and long pulses could be a problem).

You'd send messages in a couple of different ways depending on how you were carrying the phone at the time. I devised a couple of tweaks to make the process of sending messages faster.

When carrying the phone at your side, you could send messages with one hand by tapping on the back of the phone in the convention dot (short) and dash (notation). The panel would interpret a brief pulse as a dot, a longer pulse as a dash. Timing is important, so this method of sending messages takes more practice.

With both hands free or with the phone resting on a surface, you could use a slightly different method to tap messages. Holding the phone in one hand and tapping with the other, you'd tap the panel with your fingernail to send a dot, and with your whole fingertip to send a dash. Timing is much less important here, so this method will be easier for people to learn.

Receiving messages is less of an issue, since they'll arrive as text messages. The sending telephone will convert the tapped dots and dashes into alphanumeric messages to be sent via SMS or IP. The receiving telephone will display these in the usual way (an option to play messages via text to speech synthesis would be a nice add-on, and as mobile phones become more powerful, should be easy enough to do).

Hands-Free Mobile Phone Features

Incorporating a Morse Code key into the back of a telephone handset has other uses besides tapping text messages. One of the things this enables you to do is to make it easier to control a telephone in hands-free mode.

For example, you could design the phone so that it recognizes certain codes as keypad commands, primarily for deciding how to deal with incoming calls.

.. = answer call
... = send call to voice mail
.... = forward call to preprogrammed number

So while you're driving along, you could dispatch incoming calls as desired by tapping on the back of the handset, something you could do heads up, without taking your eyes off the road.

While this isn't Morse Code per se, it's the same idea, and it should be easy to train users to learn a handful of short two or three digit codes as in the example above. This is probably more realistic than training users to compose SMS messages in Morse, as anybody can memorize a handful of tap sequences.

Back to the Future

I'll admit this may seem like a bit dated, but even with a Treo 600, I find it difficult to type text messages. It seems to me that something like this is worth a try. The cost of embedding this in a handset should be pretty minimal compared to that of other features like digital cameras. You're basically talking about a small plate attached to a piezo-electric sensor, which is about as simple as it gets. Even better if you can make this work using a phone's existing microphone to sense taps.

Would people actually use this? I don't know. It's hard to tell what will catch on. I thought ringtones and camera phones were improbable at best, and now those are both billion dollar industries. If something like this makes it easier to use SMS, then my guess is that it will catch on, at least with a subset of users.

While the Morse Code application may not catch on outside a small group of power users, the idea of using Morse-like code to control a telephone in hands-free mode makes a lot of sense. Tap twice to answer a call while driving, three times to send it to voice mail, four times to forward the call to your secretary. That'll be easier that opening the phone and pushing a key while driving, and a heck of a lot safer.

Brian McConnell is the founder of Trekmail, a mixed-media messaging service provider. An inventor, serial entrepreneur, and author, he also wrote Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations.