At a California Israel Chamber of Commerce demo event yesterday, I got a walk-through of an unusual and, as-pitched, probably hopeless idea for improving the interface of touch-screen devices: The Ringbow, a ring-mounted, wireless pointing stick.
The Ringbow does solve a problem in an elegant way. Touch-screen apps generally have only limited ways to control them, so access to menu commands or secondary functions requires trips to full menus, which slows down the user. The Ringbow is a finger-mounted five-way controller (four compass directions plus pushing down) that makes blasting through accessory menus faster than it would be in most apps.
Also at CICC: Fellowup, the Grandma-approved contact manager
In a demo (see video; note that the wire is for an extra battery pack the prototype device requires), selecting drawing submenu options (color picker, line weight chooser, pen type), and then making selections in those submenus, was much faster than it would otherwise be. Ringbow CEO Efrat Barit proposes that software vendors who make complex graphical apps (such as Adobe) could make their products easier and faster to use for professionals by adding Ringbow shortcuts.
There are also benefits in games, where a ring-mounted controller adds a lot of control options that one otherwise doesn't have in a touch-screen device.
Adding functionality to touch screens
However, I am skeptical that developers will pick up on this new concept in great numbers, despite Barit's statement that mobile apps developers are "excited" about the technology. There's just this huge chicken-and-egg problem here: You don't want to develop for an accessory nobody has, and nobody's going to buy a Ringbow without software that uses it.
I did use a Ringbow and can confirm that it does indeed make a touch-screen application's user interface faster (at least it did in the demo I tried), but clever developers could add new modalities to their apps without requiring new hardware. Multitouch concepts can be used for direct access to menu options; already users are familiar with "pinch" and "rotate" gestures, and OS X users are accustomed to a two-finger tap on a trackpad as the equivalent of a right-click on a mouse. Other multitouch gestures could be added to the touch lexicon for other functions. An expanded multitouch interface might not be as fast as a Ringbow, but at least developers won't have to worry about users who don't have the device.
Rather than the Ringbow getting traction in consumer apps and games on touch-screen devices, I see it being used in other specialized environments. It'd be great as a secondary controller in military and service vehicles, and arguably very useful for people who otherwise have their hands full but need access to technology--in medicine, perhaps. I would not bet against this technology being taken up in military and industrial applications, but it's too early in the history of touch-screen devices to say they need this kind of hardware to make them more usable.