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Stylus, resistive, capacitive… What is the next big thing for touchscreens?

September 2 2012 By Ashwini Sah|Break through, Concept Phones, Display technology

I strongly believe that the integration of touchscreen into smartphones was most beautiful innovation of the mobile industry. It lets you use the maximum real estate of device without compromising with core features. It’s a screen when watching videos, produces qwerty when typing, acts as an on screen game controller and the list goes on.

Its not that the touchscreens eliminated the physical keypads immediately after their adoption. Initially, they just replaced the normal screens and were integrated along with the physical keypads. But with features like of on-screen keyboards, handwriting recognition, slide and all, they just kept growing their area and finally acquired the entire front area. Today, the candy bar touchscreen is the most popular form factor across all mobile platforms and no doubt, it will be there for a long time.

We started with a stylus, then resistive, then capacitive and then what? The innovation in this area seems to have stopped from last couple of years. Either the innovators have run out of ideas or they are busy in developing SIRI and its cousins.

The consensus on the next big technology for the touchscreen varies widely. However, depending on the prototypes available today, we can list a few technologies which may turn in to reality in the near future.

Flexible Display

nokia-flexible-display



Back in 2008, Nokia and the University of Cambridge came up with a joint nanotechnology concept called Morph. This concept talked how nanotechnology could be used to make flexible and transparent devices which can change shape as per users need. You can bend or twist your mobile phone and strap them on your wrist instead of keeping them in your pocket. Since its not in your pocket but exposed to climate, it can charge itself with solar power and also do other things like forecasting the climate around you, providing information about the location etc. Sounds good, but too far cry.

In Oct 2011, Nokia again came up with a device with flexible (say semi-flexible) OLED screen. This time it was not just a concept but a real prototype. The screen was flexible but only up to the extent that you can bend, twist it slightly or squeeze it a bit. You can’t twist it enough to strap on your wrist and can’t fold it like a paper. What the heck!!! Why then you would buy a flexible phone?

Think about using the flexibility as a source of input to execute commands. The prototype displayed how bending the phone inward and outward zoomed in and out the images, how you can scroll through files by bending and twisting the phone. Though it takes more effort then scrolling through fingers, but there could be possibilities where it can fit better than a touchscreen. e.g. squeeze it in your pocket itself to change songs, no need to search for a button.

“By bending, twisting and touching the screen. You can perform one, two, three, possibly four actions simultaneously” says Tapani Jokinen, Head of Design, Technology Insights, “It’s like in your car, when you turn the steering wheel a lot, the car will move faster. This is the same.” (More here)

Nokia was not the first mobile OEM to come up with a flexible device. Samsung released it first flexible OLED prototype in Oct 2009 and then showed off a flexible device in Nov 10. In fact, the recently launched Galaxy Note 2 was rumored to be launched with a flexible display (but it didn’t).

Seems we are very close to get the semi-flexible technology in real. The fully flexible, wearable, rollable screens may take time though.

Folding Display

You can imagine folding screens either way. A single screens which folds as a book into two separate screens or two screens which converts in to a single screen when opened. It’s a great concept, which when implemented, can result into a mobile which converts into a tablet and vice versa.

Remember Sony Tablet P, a clamshell tablet which features two screens. On this tablet, some of the default apps made a great use of both the screens e.g. Playlists on the bottom screen and videos playing on the top screen, or photo gallery on the bottom screen and the images on the top screen. But the other apps from the Android market failed to use both the screens. Imagine if this tablet could have the capability to flawlessly convert in to a single screen tablet when opened completely, we would have called it a folding display.

Last year Kyocera launched a device called Echo, which was a dual screen Android phone which enabled both its screens to convert into a single screen when opened. This was followed by a Prototype featured on engadget from a company called Imerj and Frog. Both the devices had the same problem, the Hinge.

The major obstacle in this idea is to deal with folding hinge, which if not disappears, won’t let you feel that you are working on a single screen. Would you like a vertical line in between your TV screen? NO!!! then how could you afford one in between your tablet.

Image : Engadget


Image : Engadget



(Image Credit : Engadget)

Researcher Juergen Steimle, assistant professor in the Fluid Interfaces group at MIT Media Lab, is working on a project called FoldMe which talks about a double sided display which can be folded using predefined hinges. In addition to foldable characteristic, the concept enables users to use both sides of the display.

Steimle says, perhaps we are missing a trick. Does this mean we are just a step away from getting a folding tablet for us? Let’s hope so!!!

Screens with temporary physical buttons

Ever heard about the tactile stickers that can stick on any capacitive screen to give your screen some physical like buttons to play games. This Japanese product was praised by everyone. But the problem was that those tactile buttons were permanent until you remove those stickers.

tactile-plus-game-controller

How about a screen which can raise a portion of their surface to provide you a physical button when required and disappears when you are done?

Tactus Technology, a California based company, talks about its tactile layer component which can provide a real haptic user interface with tactile buttons. These buttons, with the help of Microfluidic technology rise out of the surface when required by the UI, app or the game and disappears without leaving a mark when no more required.

“When triggered, the thin layer deforms and buttons or shapes of a specific height, size and firmness appear on the surface of the screen.” Tactus writes in their press release, “Users can feel, press down and interact with these physical buttons just like they would use keys on a keyboard. The buttons recede into the surface and become invisible when they are no longer needed.”

slide_phone

The concept is boon for users who think they can’t live without a Blackberry. The project is in its nascent stage now and there is no information about by when we can see this implemented in the devices. We hope (eagerly) to see this go real very soon.

Wrap up

Some concepts are very much feasible and it seems we are very close to it. Especially, the Semi-flexible thing could be the first to arrive out of the bunch. Samsung has already hinted regarding its launch in this year itself. Lets hope Nokia to follow soon.

Other concepts just need the required focus. The companies (or persons) behind these are just start-ups and may need a proper backup to achieve success. Imerj and Frog, the company behind the dual screen prototype does not seem to exist anymore (even the website is down). I really wish Tactus to survive.

Leading OEMs are busy suing each other. It should not come as a shock if an Indian company (again) becomes first to pull these technologies into the market.

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