Apple touchscreens are unparalleled in detecting touch and interpreting complex, multi-touch gestures. However, for the most part, they can’t tell how hard you’re pressing. Recent patent publications reveal Apple is trying to bring pressure-sensitive touchscreens to their devices. This technology could introduce new ways to interact with Apple devices, as well as completely new applications for them.
Follow The Patent Trail
If recent patent filings are any sign, pressure-sensitive touchscreens will be a major focus in the next generation of electronic devices. In the last several years, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung have all filed for patents to detect and measure pressure on touchscreens. Each respective company has its own unique proposal for solving the issue, with some companies already fielding initial versions in the market.
Apple has historically demonstrated an obsessive attention to detail when developing new technologies. They will likely devote the same thoughtfulness to their pressure-sensitive displays. Microsoft’s own Surface product line already has pressure-sensitivity. Meanwhile, Apple is slowly collecting patents to produce what seemingly is going to be a superior implementation.
These patents, outline a system of combining multiple pressure-sensing technologies. The resulting implementation would allow several people to use a device at the same time. It would also be able to distinguish objects from fingers, and inactive fingers from active fingers.
Perhaps ironically, Apple’s proposed implementation follows in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Surface devices. Several parts are so similar that one has to wonder if Apple may have to license part of the technology from Microsoft. Such scenarios are common nowadays though — more often than not, new technology builds on existing technology.
How Pressure-Sensitivity Will Change Touchscreen Interaction
Currently, the only way to achieve a wide range of pressure-sensitivity with touchscreens is through the use of external hardware, such as a stylus. Some styluses can detect thousands of different degrees of pressure. That granularity is mostly desired by artists though. Once pressure-sensitivity is native to touchscreen devices, external hardware will no longer be required. A finger will be just as effective in terms of producing variable pressure. However, styluses may still be preferable for more precise results, as in handwriting recognition.
With built-in pressure-sensitivity, touchscreens will be able to detect a much broader spectrum of force. This force could be translated to analog controls that would provide realistic input within a variety of applications. A simple example would be the ability to produce different stroke weights while sketching with your finger. More sophisticated applications could involve 3D gaming and virtual reality simulations. For instance, pressure could control the throttle on a simulated car or plane.
Unfortunately, these patents don’t necessarily mean that Apple, nor its competitors, are rushing to alter their product lines. Technology companies like Apple file for patents all the time. At a minimum, such actions show what the industry’s product designers have been thinking about. Pressure-sensitivity does seem like a logical next-step. As with other touchscreen updates, it would likely lead to more seamless interaction. If Apple does bring the technology to their touchscreens, you can bet it’ll be game-changing.