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Synaptics on the Future of Touchscreen Technology

Synaptics Fuse

Synaptics, a developer of human interface solutions, hit the jackpot when it bet big on touchscreen technology before it became an integral part of consumer culture. The company's Onyx touchscreen concept, for example, predated the iPhone by six months in 2006. That's why we went straight to Synaptics at this year's Device Design Day in San Francisco to find out what's coming up next for touchscreens.

Much of the touchscreen technology on the cusp of commercialization can be seen in Synaptics' Fuse concept phone (pictured above). The phone, which debuted in 2009, combines finely tuned haptic feedback, multi-touch capacitive sensing (there are sensors on both the sides and back of the phone), 3-D graphics, and force, grip, and proximity sensing. Some of the technology is now found in today's handsets—concepts like the back sensor are already in use. "It's not a future device, it's a 'next device,'" explains Synaptics Technology Strategist Andrew Hsu. "It's validating to see our ideas coming into the market."

So what's next? Synaptics' dedicated concept and prototyping team have a few ideas. "The usage models for handsets are evolving. There are things you don't anticipate, like Foursquare and Google Latitudes," Hsu says.

One possibility: taking advantage of the non-touchscreen phone market. Because while touchscreen handsets may dominate tech-heavy cities in the U.S., they only make up a small percentage of the cell phones available around the world. Hsu imagines that some of these non-touchscreen phones could be outfitted with touchpad interfaces, much like what is found on MacBook laptops. Manufacturers may also install back sensors on standard phones.

Such technology probably won't even cost consumers that much extra. "Data costs make it easier for carriers to make cash. There's no downside for end users, because the phones are likely to be subsidized," Hsu says.

Hsu also speculates that fewer consumers may demand smart phones as tablet devices increase in popularity. We have a hard time imagining that, but Hsu isn't so sure. "The question is—which form factor will win out?"

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.