New Touch Screen Technology Uses Sound Navigation

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A Cambridge start-up has developed an acoustic technology that could make smartphones smarter

A Cambridge University backed company has developed an acoustic processing technology, in the form of a software-only upgrade, that could one day offer an alternative to the touch screens currently used in smartphones and other devices.

According to the company’s chief executive, Giovanni Bisutti, the technology could be used to “make smartphones even smarter by enabling the user to interact with the entirety of the casework and not just the touch screen area”. It could also provide feature phones with touch screen functionality at “icon resolution level”, said Bisutti.

InputDynamics claims that its “TouchDevice” technology, when enabling touch screen functionality in feature phones, also has benefits for the environment. This is because handsets using it will not need to use rare metals such as indium, used in the manufacture of current touch screens.

Software-only system

Indium and other non-renewable materials are needed to build touch capabilities into current touch screens, but this hardware isn’t needed with Input Dynamics’ technology, since it relies entirely on software and on the handset’s existing microphone.

TouchDevice relies on the acoustic signal produced by the user swiping or tapping on the display to effectively simulate a touchscreen. The technology isn’t limited to the display screen, as users can tap or swipe on the entirety of the handset case, the company said.

The technology, based on new algorithms developed by Professor Simon Godsill and PhD student Jens Enzo Nyby Christensen at the Cambridge University department of engineering, could reduce the cost of touch-screen devices, increase their functionality and eliminate the need for expensive and non-renewable materials, InputDynamics said.

The company was awarded a £100,000 grant by the East of England Development Agency in 2009 to develop its technology, and is competing in the UK ICT Pioneers Competition, which will hand out awards on 23 March.

Input Dynamics is currently in discussion with handset manufacturers on building the technology into products.

Touch screen technology

Touch screens have increased dramatically in popularity over the last year, thanks largely to the success of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which use capacitive touch screen displays.

Capacitive touch screens consist of an insulator such as glass, coated with a transparent conductor such as indium tin oxide. They work by using the human body as an electrical conductor. Touching the surface of the screen results in a distortion of the screen’s electrostatic field, measurable as a change in capacitance.

The acceptance of touch screen technology into the mainstream consumer market has transformed the mobile industry, with manufacturers worldwide scrambling to release their own touch screen smartphones and tablets. There are just over 20 million tablets in use today, with a market potential of over 180 million sales by 2014, according to RBC.

“People are so much more comfortable now,”  said Mike Stinson, Motion’s vice president of marketing, speaking to eWEEK Europe in January. “Touching the display has become acceptable.”

This article has been updated to make it clear that Giovanni Bisutti is the principal founder of Input Dynamics.

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