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Touch Interface Developments From Synaptics

CES 2013: Day 1 Highlights
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Synaptics shared a number of touch interface products with us, along with some promising developments for the future.

Beginning with touchpads, we saw the company's ForcePad in action. Essentially a touchpad with the ability to sense finger pressure from up to five digits at a time, the ForcePad promises some interesting potential to enhance multi-touch gestures. Scrolling speed, for instance, could be better controlled depending on the amount of pressure applied. We were told that the ForcePad is expected to make its retail debut sometime this summer.

We were then shown the ThinTouch capacitive keyboard. Synaptics removed the rubber domes underneath keycaps, simultaneously eliminating the need for raised keys and allowing the entire keyboard to be used as a touchpad. Since the keyboard can tell whether the user is hovering, resting, pressing lightly, or pressing hard, there are a number of potentially interesting benefits to this technology and all this new data can be used to control output. For example, a hard press could register a capital letter, or the touchpad could automatically disable when a user's hands are detected on the keyboard. With the keys lowered, the depth for a keypress has been increased by moving them diagonally to add the perception of a longer stroke. The ThinTouch keyboard is in the prototype phase, and Synaptics doesn't expect it to become available before the second half of 2013.

We also saw the company's ClickPad 2.0, which has been redesigned with more rigidity and the mechanical mechanism integrated inside to deliver better click performance.

After seeing touchpads, we moved on to touchscreens. While we've already heard of the Nokia 920's ability to work through gloves, it was no less interesting to see this in action. If the user is wearing gloves, the phone goes into a more sensitive mode where the user can employ their gloved finger or other object (such as a pen) to operate the interface. The Synaptics representative explained that this feature isn't as simple as cranking up the sensitivity. Since noise from a number of sources could affect operation, a great deal of processing is required for this mode to work. Ever since the Nokia 920 has been released, Synaptics has received a ton of requests for this feature, so the company expects it to proliferate.

We were then shown a prototype solution for an issue that may become problematic in the future: large tablets with ultra-slim bezels. In this scenario, the user has nowhere to put their finger or thumb to hold the tablet without interfering with the touchscreen operation. With current tablets, for example, if the thumb used to hold the screen, is accidentally touching the active part of the screen, an intended finger swipe could be misinterpreted as a double-finger pinch gesture. The potential solution Synaptics is working on involves the use of two imaging sensors on back of the tablet. These sensors detect when the user is gripping the device. So, when user puts a thumb down to clamp the front of the screen, the driver recognizes it as grip event and excludes it from registering as part of a gesture. In addition, the prototype can avoid displaying data behind the gripping thumb by adjusting text margins to keep information viewable. The company envisions a future where bezel-free tablets can be arranged side-by-side to create larger displays and even accept pan-device gesturing. And that sounds like a future we can dig.

Finally, we were shown a comparison test of the accuracy of touchscreens from different manufacturers using tools to simulate different finger sizes. We were quite surprised to see the wavy lines generated on some of the competitor-built models, while Synaptics touchscreens registered smooth output. Company representatives suggested that competitor's products can suffer issues caused by a combination of firmware and sensor pattern design flaws. This is something that we'd like to test in the future, to see whether or not this actually makes a difference in the real world.

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