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Touchscreens For All?

New technology could make smartphones the norm in the developing world, and might have a host of other applications yet to be imagined.

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A Cambridge University Ph.D. student, Jens Christensen, has developed a novel way to make touchscreens cheaper. By relying on acoustical cues and a set of algorithms, Christensen’s invention could enable feature phones with touchscreens, as well as touch-sensitive walls or tables, among other things. Christensen’s project was recently deemed the most commercially viable Ph.D. work by something called the U.K. ICT Pioneers Competition, run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the U.K.

Christensen, who originally hails from Denmark, calls it TouchDevice. The basic insight behind it is that using acoustical cues fed to its microphone, a device like a smartphone can infer where a finger is pressing on a device. Currently, TouchDevice can place your finger within a radius of a little over a centimeter; future iterations should get better.

Any existing phone with a microprocessor could be retrofitted, in theory, to use Christensen’s system, and indeed Christensen is working on building an app for Android devices. But the real market of interest here is the feature phone (non-smartphone) market in the developing world, since it could bring smartphone-like abilities to the traditional mobile phones that have seen explosive growth in those countries. While 300 million smartphones were sold last year, Christensen pointed out to The Engineer, over three times as many non-smartphones were sold.

The Engineer also points out that Christensen’s technology doesn’t replicate all the abilities of your iPhone touchscreen–you can’t drag items or double click, for instance. But it makes up for that, potentially, since the technology makes the entire surface of your phone touch-sensitive–not just the screen. Simply touching the back of the phone, for example, might enable you to reject a call.

The technology is still a little rough around the edges, Christensen has admitted. You have to train the software to recognize your finger placement, and fluctuations in temperature appear to affect it. But ironing out these kinks would seem well worth it, given that the technology could enable touch-sensitive walls, tables, and much else. Imagine simply touching a wall to flick on or off a light. In theory, at least, touchscreens could become touch-anythings. As Christensen himself has said, “It is clear that my research has applications that are far beyond what I have been able to imagine.”

He estimates that the technology could see market inside of three years. And the Android app far sooner than that.

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[Image: CabumeVids]

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Read More: Did HP Just Wander Into Apple’s Touchscreen iMac Patent Minefield?

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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