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Synaptics' concept 'squeeze-phone' brings touch to all surfaces

By CAROLINE GABRIEL

Published: 15 December, 2009

READ MORE: Synaptics | Texas Instruments | Semiconductor | Handset

Smartphones are starting to look more and more like clones - all of them sporting a large touchscreen, a widgets-based user interface, 5-mp camera and multiple connectivity options, and of course an app store. Vendors are racing to find the secret to differentiating their offerings by more than price, and while these efforts will be heavily focused on software and the user experience (the Google 'mobile lab', Nokia's Maemo developments), there is still an intense contest to change the hardware face of the phone.

Tablets, smartbooks, MIDs - some new form factors will certainly emerge, but these will remain in a niche for a couple of years at least. But what about eye-catching new features for the conventional smartphone, beyond just a better camera (the Koreans may get to 15-mp in 2010), a brighter screen or a faster processor (Qualcomm's gigahertz Snapdragon will be one of the real successes of next year, infiltrating a large number of top end phones)? Synaptics, defending its lead in the touchscreen chip market against Cypress and Atmel, has one answer, the 'squeezable' phone.


This draws on the emerging concept of applying touch technology to all kinds of devices, and to every area of the phone, not just the screen. This has been much discussed by companies like Freescale and now Synaptics has joined with Texas Instruments to show a concept phone called Fuse, which will be demonstrated at January's Consumer Electronics Show.

The idea is to harness unused surfaces to make smartphones more interactive and easy to use. The Fuse is not meant to be a commercial device but indicates where the market could go in future. It allows users to interact with it through squeezing and tilting, which means applications can be loaded with only one hand on the device. The phone's input mechanisms employ accelerometers and sensors that enable single-handed interaction. Users can navigate lists of apps by tilting the handset up and down, squeezing its sides to stop the scrolling, while rolling a finger on the back of the gadget selects and app, and another squeeze launches it. There are also force and capacitive touch sensors on the sides of the phone for directional panning and scrolling. The phone also has accelerometers and haptics technology on the front glass and the sides of the phones, Synaptics said in its joint statement with TI, which provides the OMAP applications processor for the concept design.

In appearance, the phone is not ground breaking, though the same ideas could be applied to new-look devices like smartbooks too. This platform has a 3.7-inch AMOLED screen with 480 x 800 resolution and multitouch, and runs on the OMAP 3630 apps processor with PowerVR SGX 2D/3D graphics core. The design could support any operating system, though the reference platform runs its own OS and a 3D user interface, both created by various software partners including TheAlloy and The Astonishing Tribe.

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