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A Gyroscope That Will Set the Tech World Spinning

A Gyroscope That Will Set the Tech World Spinning

One of the most interesting new features in the iPhone 4 is the internal gyroscope that Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated by playing a virtual game of Jenga. Combining a gyroscope with previous iPhone accoutrements -- like the compass, accelerometer and GPS -- is going to open new doors for developers on multiple platforms, and not just for gaming.

By Renay San Miguel
06/11/10 5:00 AM PT

You don't have to be an Apple fanboy to rave about the coolness on display during a typical Steve Jobs keynote presentation. Sure, like any good speaker or stand-up comic, Jobs knows where his guaranteed applause/laugh lines fall during the hour or so he's on stage, and he's well aware of who will be doing most of the laughing, oohing and aahing. It's better than a '60s sitcom laugh-track. But he's also playing to the rafters somewhat; knowing that there will be plenty of after-the-fact coverage of his keynotes, Jobs throws in new takes on technology that will truly impress the mainstream audience, not just the tech-savvy Mac acolytes.

So yes, the FaceTime video chat platform was truly impressive for its apparent ease-of-use, even though Apple isn't really reinventing the videophone wheel with that development. But it's going to make a great TV commercial, no doubt featuring soldiers talking to loved ones face-to-face from halfway around the world, or the grandkids singing happy birthday to Nana via iPhone 4. If a sappy AT&T long-distance commercial could make Robert DeNiro's mobster character sob uncontrollably during a scene from "Analyze This," then surely Apple can get the tearducts flowing with its marketing savvy.

The pixel-rich Retina Display wowed the audience, as expected, although that will have to wait for my personal coolness quotient (PCQ) review until I can actually play with an iPhone 4 in an Apple Store.

Yet I'm wondering where all the media love is for the announcement that Apple was sticking a gyroscope in the iPhone 4. Jobs demonstrated this by moving around on the stage while playing a Jenga-like game on the phone. The game "Pieces" instantly responded to his movements, and it did indeed hit new PCQ levels.

Game One

The gaming press is certainly having fun talking up the potential game-changing (sorry) impact from all this on that industry, and for good reason: The iPhone 3GS was already a first-class handheld gaming console even without the traditional buttons and joysticks. The accelerometer and the juiced-up processor provided a handy platform for developers to take their own games to the next level, and most of them came through, judging from the continued success of the App Store and the interest in writing for it, SDK restrictions be damned.

I wrote about this last September here, and I'd have to admit that the issues raised regarding pricing and developer decisions (do I write for the iPhone or Nintendo DS/Sony PSP? How do I make my game tell the difference between an early iPhone and the 3GS?) didn't seem to slow things down that much. Gaming apps are flying out of the Store, and since that story, I've interviewed other small developers who saw the gaming potential in Apple's smartphone and are hard at work trying to come up with the next "Plants vs. Zombies."

So now those developers have a gyroscope to think about as it works in conjunction with the smartphone's existing accelerometer, compass and super-fast A4 processor -- the same one found in the iPad. Now gamers can set themselves up in open space via a new way to control their characters or vehicles in a gaming app. And if it will work for the iPhone 4, why not the next versions of the iPad and the iPod touch?

But I want to hear some talk and read some thoughts about how the six-axis capabilities in the gyro/accelerometer/compass ensemble will affect next-level development of augmented reality apps. I have to admit that I'm a sucker for AR toys like Layar, which pop up balloons with Yelp recommendations, Wikipedia info and Twitter activity over whatever you're looking at live with the smartphone's camera. It's my own heads-up display on the world, and I rank the PCQ at warp factor 9. So now developers get to integrate a gyroscope into those particular applications, and there's nowhere to go but up -- while pitching and rolling.

A Big Spin

Market researchers at iSuppli are certainly paying attention. The company's report this week forecast that gyroscope suppliers would see their business zoom to US$220 million over the next four years from a standing start of zero in 2009.

Certainly the Nintendo Wii Motion Plus peripheral will keep impacting those sales too, and as an avid fan of "Wii Sports Resort" with its dead-on archery and bowling features, I can see why. And don't forget the forthcoming Xbox Project Natal and Sony Playstation Move motion control systems and whatever plans they may have for gyroscopes. Whoever has a big position in shares of these manufacturers may need their own gyroscopes to re-orient themselves after they watch the effect of this new activity on their portfolios.

The potential impact that could reach beyond gamers and AR fiends like myself, I think, lies in safety and other location-aware applications, and not just in smartphones. Certainly the next generation of Android phones will include them since Google apps offer up a perfect fit. But the iPhone 4 will serve as a handy research-and-development lab for other portable devices and methods using gyros to make sure nobody ever gets lost again, or for tracking and securing important freight/cargo in transit. More consumer and business uses await, I'm sure, besides the expected applications for OnStar-like navigation aids and GPS units.

All that's needed is the imagination of the development community and someone to spread the gyroscopic coolness to the rest of the world -- in six different directions.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.


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