Quantum Effect Will Make Phones Pressure-Sensitive

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

MWC: British firm Peratech’s novel quantum material will give a pressure-sensitive dimension to phone screens and navigation keys

British firm Peratech has signed deals to put a new material in mobile phone touchscreens and navigation keys, that uses a quantum mechanical effect to make them respond to pressure.

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Samsung Electro-Mechanics will use quantum tunnelling composite (QTC) technology from Peratech, to make navigation keys which will respond to pressure – so, for instance, they scroll faster when pressed harder. Samsung ME makes keys for other “Tier 1” manufacturers, one of whom is already shipping a phone with a pressure-sensitive navigation key.

The technology has also been licensed for $1.4 million (£897,000) by touchsreen maker Nissha Printing, which will use it to provide an extra dimension to its screens, so the user can for instance, move into the screen by pressing harder.

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The QTC technology works by quantum tunnelling between nano-particles embedded in the composite material. The nano-particles are spikey, looking like medieval maces, and are made of a conducting material, according to Peratech CEO Philip Taysom. Although they are embedded in an insulator, quantum mechanics allows electrons to “tunnel” across between the particles when the material is pressed, and their spikes become closer together.

This creates a thinner and more reliable switch which is also more responsive, since it conducts better when it is pressed harder, said Taysom. “This is a very significant step for Peratech and we are delighted Samsung EM has chosen our QTC technology. It is a huge testament to the power and potential of QTC technology to not only replace traditional switches with more reliable switches but to also add new functionality so that better, more innovative products can be created with enhanced user interaction.”

Touchscreen technology has become very important, and pressure-sensitivity could be the next differentiator for screens after multitouch, which was popularised by Apple’s iPhone. Google has upgraded its Nexus One phone to include multi-touch, and Amazon has bought a multitouch company to upgrade its Kindle in competition with the Apple iPad

Some attempts have been made to add pessure-sensitivity using pressure sensors, for instance in Blackberry’s Storm phone and in a Nokia patent application made in 2009. The Peratech QTC technology has the potential to provide this without a somewhat clumsy combination of piezoelectrics and normal touchscreen technology.

“The pressure sensitivity of the QTC switches changes the game when it comes to human machine interface design enabling truly 3D user interfaces to be created in small, low power devices,” said Dr. Ho-Chul Joung, principal manager at Samsung EM: “This three-dimensionality cannot be matched with existing resistive and capacitive technologies.”