Touch specialist Synaptics is working on technologies that will allow touchscreens to mimic the feel of a physical keypad, in order to make smartphones easier to use, according to company technology strategist Andrew Hsu.
In many ways, the move to touch has improved the user experience on mobile phones. But not everything has changed for the better, including the distraction of always having to look at your smartphone when using it. "One of the most exciting things that we are looking into these days is trying to improve the haptics experience," said Hsu.
The goal is to build a touchscreen with the tactile feedback of a keypad. Users should be able run their fingers over virtual keys and get the same sensation as a mechanical keypad gives, allowing them to feel where the buttons are, and then activate them by pushing down a little bit harder, according to Hsu.
"It is a very subtle, but yet significant problem to solve," said Hsu, who didn't say when the technology will become a reality.
Today, haptics have a bit of a bad rap, which Hsu is the first to admit. "Haptics has been a relatively controversial topic simply because the actuation mechanisms, mostly through what are called ERM (Eccentric Rotating Mass) motors, really give you a buzzy feeling," said Hsu.
The focus now is on developing better technology and go beyond just vibrations, and add other types of feedback that can mimic the edges of a physical key.
More advanced haptics isn't the only technology that may make its way into future smartphones. In December 2009, Synaptics, in cooperation with Texas Instruments, Immersion, TheAlloy and The Astonishing Tribe (which was subsequently acquired by Research In Motion), announced the Fuse concept phone.
The device was developed to demonstrate ways to improve the user experience on smartphones, according to Hsu. In addition to offering a touchscreen, the Fuse also could be controlled by allowing the user to squeeze a touch-sensitive back, a technique also known as force sensing.
"It is only a matter of time before those elements are incorporated into handsets, as well," said Hsu.
Touch sensors on the back of devices have made their way onto a few products, including the Motorola Backflip and Sony's upcoming PlayStation Vita. But so far, the technology hasn't become widely available. To make that happen more work needs to be done on software integration.
"The big element is really trying to incorporate [the touch sensor] into an overall user experience, and is a little bit of a challenge for that to be seamlessly introduced into a user interface," said Hsu.
Today, force sensing simply isn't mature enough to make its way into production. But within a couple of years, force sensors will become a regular feature in many handheld devices, according to Hsu.