The cellphone has become Africa’s personal computer. Unable to afford computers or laptops, the vast majority of people on the continent are innovative in their use of mobile devices — using them to access Facebook, surf the web or store applications that interest them.
Applications for these mobile computing platforms are now the subject of research at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. “The majority of the population can’t afford expensive laptops. We are trying to design better techniques and methods to enable people to use mobile devices as computer platforms,” said Janet Wesson, a professor in the computing sciences department.
The applications Wesson and her postgraduate students are investigating include mobile maps, tourist guides and in-car communication systems that detect the driver’s level of distraction by monitoring the speed and steering angle of the car, delaying incoming messages or calls if needed.
They are building personalisation into mobile devices — meaning the device “remembers” your preferences and customises the information it provides.
For instance, one student is developing a mobile application for an online property company, which users can use to view a list of properties matching their preferences in a region of their choice.
One of Wesson’s PhD students, Bradley van Tonder, had a paper accepted for the Interact 2011 conference in Portugal taking place later this month for his work on one-handed, mobile tilt-based interaction, as opposed to normal keypad interaction. Wesson said: “Why should we always have to look to Europe and the United States for leading-edge research? We can do it here and make it relevant for the South African population.
“We want to provide users with the information they need, when they need it and how they need it. That is our main focus: How can we make the mobile user experience better for South Africans?”
Most of the applications under development are linked to the internet, but some information is cached on the phone to minimise costs. “We are developing a lot of mobile prototypes that will provide knowledge and expertise for future development,” said Wesson, who has also developed the country’s first postgraduate mobile computing course.
Wesson is the South African representative on the international technical committee on human-computer interaction. With Professor Paula Kotze of the CSIR’s Meraka Institute, she will co-chair Interact 2013 to be held in Cape Town, the first in Africa, with the theme “Designing for Diversity”.
Nicky Willemse is a freelance writer contracted to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.