Earlier this month, Synaptics announced its new era of touch-based technologies comprised of a force-sensitive trackpad, called the ForcePad, and an ultra-thin keyboard technology, called ThinTouch.
Now the company has confirmed that its ForcePad technology has been chosen for the fourth annual User Interface Software & Technology (UIST) Student Innovation Contest (SIC). Originally released to UIST under the codename "Jedeye" (no doubt to suggest that it knows how to use the Force), Synaptics’ ForcePad solution joins three-time hardware supplier Microsoft in supporting the contest.
The ForcePad is the next evolution of the trackpad. Today's top touch-based navigation solutions on notebooks are simply touch surfaces on a hinge that facilitate clicking when pressed. Synaptics' solution has no hinge, but rather the entire surface is able to detect the pressure of five fingers with up to 1,000 grams of dynamic range in force sensitivity. We were told that the ForcePad has a 6-bit sensor with a 15 gram resolution that's able to detect 64 different pressure levels.
The ability to detect varying amounts of pressure per finger enables new usage paradigms in virtually every software genre, making ForcePad a natural choice for the UIST Student Innovation Contest.
"We're delighted to be working with Synaptics, an industry leader in human interface technology," said Rob Miller, general chair of the ACM UIST 2012 conference and professor of computer science at MIT. "Synaptics has given generous support to this year's UIST Student Innovation Contest, including the use of its technology. Synaptics understands that today's students will invent tomorrow's great ideas."
We literally went hands-on with this new ForcePad, and the immediate benefit afforded by the new technology is its lack of moving parts. With buttons and even the clickable surface, the user must move his or her fingers to the lower portion of the trackpad in order to input a click. With the ForcePad, however, the entire surface is sensitive to downward pressures.
Synaptics' demo unit was set to register a click at 200 grams of force – or about one-fifth of its maximum sensory range. In our usage, the lack of a haptic feedback was a bit jarring at first. To counter this, Synaptics enabled an audio cue to inform the user when something was clicked. Within a few minutes of further use, we found the ForcePad to be clearly superior to any other trackpad technology we've used before. The ability to "click" anywhere on the pad without adjusting pressure for the hinge or moving fingers down to physical buttons greatly enhanced productivity by reducing the hands' travel distance.
Besides just improving current usage models, the force-sensitive pad also enables new ways for software to use the input. For example, two-finger scrolling through documents and webpages can continue infinitely when the user simply applies more pressure after reaching the end of the pad's surface. The harder the user pushes the faster the content scrolls. Other demos shown by Synaptics include a flight game that show the ForcePad's somewhat analog ability – the harder presses register as more pronounced and aggressive maneuvers.
Other supported gestures include:
Another big advantage of the ForcePad over current solutions is its thinner profile. At just 3mm thick, it compares well against the 5.5mm pads of today. This will give system designers the choice between making even thinner notebooks or to using the extra space to pack in more hardware, such as a larger battery.
Synaptics said that we'll be seeing its ForcePad technology implemented in machines in 2013. The company's VP of marketing for its PC division, Godfrey Cheng, said in a statement, "ForcePad is the most significant development in touch technology since Synaptics invented the first TouchPad in 1995." On first impressions, we're inclined to agree.
Check out the videos below for more information. They're a bit over-the-top in terms of presentation, but the points presented are accurate from our hands-on time.
Details for the UIST SIC Contest:
▪ Contest and conference in Cambridge, Mass.
▪ Contest registration deadline: Aug. 24
▪ Registration: http://www.acm.org/uist/uist2012/contest.html
▪ UIST conference registration deadline: Aug. 26
▪ Contest hardware shipped: Aug. 27
▪ Presentation of demos and judging at conference: Oct. 8
▪ Winners announced at conference: Oct. 9
▪ Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
▪ Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/uistcontest
▪ Twitter: @uistcontest