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Sean Gustafson Dissertation

Imaginary Interfaces

by Sean Gustafson


The size of a mobile device is primarily determined by the size of the touchscreen. As such, researchers have found that the way to achieve ultimate mobility is to abandon the screen altogether. These wearable devices are operated using hand gestures, voice commands or a small number of physical buttons. By abandoning the screen these devices also abandon the currently dominant spatial interaction style (such as tapping on buttons), because, seemingly, there is nothing to tap on. Unfortunately this design prevents users from transferring their learned interaction knowledge gained from traditional touchscreen-based devices.

In this dissertation, I present Imaginary Interfaces, which return spatial interaction to screenless mobile devices. With these interfaces, users point and draw in the empty space in front of them or on the palm of their hands. While they cannot see the results of their interaction, they obtain some visual and tactile feedback by watching and feeling their hands interact. After introducing the concept of Imaginary Interfaces, I present two hardware prototypes that showcase two different forms of interaction with an imaginary interface, each with its own advantages: mid-air imaginary interfaces can be large and expressive, while palm-based imaginary interfaces offer an abundance of tactile features that encourage learning.

Given that imaginary interfaces offer no visual output, one of the key challenges is to enable users to discover the interface's layout. This dissertation offers three main solutions: offline learning with coordinates, browsing with audio feedback and learning by transfer. The latter I demonstrate with the Imaginary Phone, a palm-based imaginary interface that mimics the layout of a physical mobile phone that users are already familiar with.

Although these designs enable interaction with Imaginary Interfaces, they tell us little about why this interaction is possible. In the final part of this dissertation, I present an exploration into which human perceptual abilities are used when interacting with a palm-based imaginary interface and how much each accounts for performance with the interface. These findings deepen our understanding of Imaginary Interfaces and suggest that palm-based Imaginary Interfaces can enable stand-alone eyes-free use for many applications, including interfaces for visually impaired users.


Sean Gustafson. 2013. Imaginary Interfaces. Doctoral Dissertation, Hasso Plattner Institute, University of Potsdam.

Bibtex entry

@THESIS { SeanGustafsonDissertation,
    AUTHOR = { Sean Gustafson },
    TITLE = { Imaginary Interfaces },
    SCHOOL = { Hasso Plattner Institute, University of Potsdam },
    ADDRESS = { Potsdam, Germany },
    YEAR = { 2013 },
    MONTH = { November },
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