Microsoft patent reveals some sort of Windows-based multimedia/communication device (crappy pics included)

ZuneFor those of you quick jumping to conclusions without reading the whole post, no, this isn’t the Zune Phone. It might however lead to features for the Zune revision 2.0. I’m sure the Zune guys thank you for thinking about them.

A bunch of new patent applications by Microsoft were published today like they do at the start of every week, and one of those was an application for “color and context-adaptable hardware button“. Now the title would suggest it isn’t exactly rocket-science stuff, but nevertheless still interesting – one might say a simple yet practical idea. So I decided to check it out anyway. It was originally filed in 2005, so not exactly hot out of the oven, presumably stale or even moldy. Lo and behold, pictures (or what some may call poor photocopy scans) appeared of an unidentifiable yet intriguing portable media device. To say the least, much more interesting than the buttons.

Color and context-adaptable hardware buttonsSo first let’s get the color and context-adaptable buttons out of the way. The idea is extremely simple. The D-Pad as most gamers are aware of is a directional pad with at least four possible inputs, up to five in some cases – left, right, top, bottom, and maybe center. This however was not always so intuitive as they merely indicate direction.

Optimus Maximus keyboardWhat this patent suggests is that if you place a electronic ink display (214) on top of the D-Pad (218), together with a cover (212) and lights (216), you can create an input mechanism with changeable icons, animation and text on each of the four/five buttons.

Think of it as a D-Pad like the keys on an Optimus Maximus keyboard. Right, so fancy buttons. Moving on. If the patent office wasn’t so outdated with their 2-bit photocopying and archiving technologies, we might have had some really high-quality color models here. Unfortunately, they’re still using 60’s technology so you’re going to have to live with these barely-visible images.

Windows-based multimedia/communication device patent image

Windows-based multimedia/communication device patent image

Windows Media CenterIt’s only two black-and-white images that looks like its been photocopied at least 20 times, but it still shows a lot of interesting features. For example, the visible menu interface is much like if not identical to the interface you would find on Windows Media Center. Each ‘category’ is sorted vertically, with the active category showing the various functions on buttons laid out horizontally across the middle of the screen. From only what’s visible, there are “Audio books, movies, music, photos and TV” available under “entertainment”. The other category includes “communication” – phone and/or instant messaging perhaps, “create” – ambiguous but perhaps recording and mixing content, “play” – maybe games? It’s not entirely clear from just the categories but it shows a lot of promise.

WindowsUnderneath is probably the most unexpected feature, a Windows icon. Could that suggest such a device would be powered-by a fully functioning variant of Windows – may that be Embedded or Mobile? If so, then it would open a whole universe of applications and third-party extensions. Then there are icons for music, messenger, contacts, and some blocks. Battery, wireless and time indicators are also visible.

MessengerThe next picture shows a messenger window popping out from underneath, with a conversation actively in progress. A “Go to messenger” link is also provided confirming the existence of Messenger on the device. Note, the D-Pad buttons changed, as the patent is originally designed to demonstrate, to the various options relevant to messenger-context actions like “respond” or “ignore”. Neat stuff.

It’s easy to lose yourself with the idea that this device is actually real, because it most likely isn’t. Remember, this patent application was not designed to describe the device as much as it uses the device to illustrate a scenario where context-sensitive buttons might be useful. The device may or may not be just a render or mockup. But something to take away from all this is that Microsoft or at least one lonely person at Microsoft is thinking about a device which can do all of the above, and has considered it seriously enough to make a mockup. Such a person being either Jonathan D. Friedman or Christian J. Colando – the inventors of this patent, should talk to the Zune team immediately.

P.S. My heart goes out to the friends and family of the good Samaritan who was helping a gun-shot victim in Melbourne today only to be shot and killed himself.

14 insightful thoughts

  1. why not integrate the buttons into the actual on screen interface and make the display a touch screen. Wouldn’t integrating another mechanical/ eletronic component make the whole thing more expensive to manufacture.

    I am also not so sure about this from a usability point. Separating presentation from interaction in my opinion has never been a great idea to begin with. Using a mouse to interact with items on a screen isn’t exactly intuitive. We know how to use it because we learned it this way.

    Drawing straight on the screen is much more intuitive.

    Sorry… just can’t get excited about a lot of the stuff coming out of Microsoft’s research labs. Not very much innovation… not very much thinking out side the box.

  2. I’d love one of these… I could chat on Messenger anywhere in my house! 😀

  3. I’ts a nice concept in my opinion, i would love to see some of that technology in future products. Touch screens in all its glory, the electronic ink D-Pad attracts me more for some reason, especially considering that future products might make use of both technologies. A Zune that looks like that definetively is far more attractive than the current one, which i honestly think is just an embarrassment to Microsoft…

  4. True, it is very similar to the Origami, but I don’t think any UMPCs have context-aware buttons or a Media Center styled interface.

  5. @Alex: Oh wow that’s hot! Wish I had some time to work on something like that.

  6. Why not just make it all touchscreen? Much more easier than having changing button icons. Changing button icons is cool, but it’s not really needed that much, or wanted. It’s cool, but it’s ok without it. I’d rather have it be a complete touchscreen than changing button controls.

  7. I’ll add my input. I think most people are thinking all wrong about this. a UMPC is a full blown windows computer, I have the feeling that this is a slightly smaller scope device. Think Intel’s MID UMPC’s blended somewhat with a Creative Zen Vision:W. In my mind this would be the flagship zune product, much the same way the W is to creative, but it encomasses a lot of third party support by using windows mobile underneath (and not something as ‘heavy’ as a full blown os). Also remember the old ‘Haiku’ UMPC Gates showed off at (surprisingly enough WinHEC ’05, same year these were filled) Microsoft may have realised that the bulky full blown UMPC’s wont reach the Haiku thin and light factor for many years, but they could hit that vision with Windows Mobile. You may be used to thinking of windows mobile as a dummy PDA OS but i think its capable of the concept’s images of the patent filing by simply giving it a speedier processor and plenty of ram and it could shine.

    In my mind this device would fill the media player need (vision:W/Zune/iPod) and fill the needs of a lightweight device that could do internet/email/office (folio/MID). Instant on, WM API’s etc. This would also be the evolution of the portable media center microsoft killed off. The Zune UI is basically that of media center’s and I can imagine this being strickly Microsoft with no OEM’s making them so microsoft gets it done right. It would fall under the Zune brand.

    It actually makes a lot of sense to include a e-ink d-pad, because if done well icons can be a single black color and you have a quick and direct choice for what your options are when you drill into a certain situation (like someone messaging you) this could also have touchscreen ontop of it for answering IM’s or an attachable keyboard like the new HTC WM device). However that d-pad would still be your ‘home’ of sorts. It would be a great place for alerts and notifications that need the immediate-ness of quick input.

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