The world of computing is continuously evolving, and the way how computers and machines understand our inputs moved from a simple input through a keyboard through detecting moves in two dimensions thanks to a mouse and trackball? all the way to computer algorithms predicting our moves on a touchpad.

When Synaptics invented the world’s first touch pad in 1995, the compute power of a whole PC was less than a Touch Controller ASIC which monitors the touchpad input on today’s mobile devices. The base principle on how a touchpad operates did not change since its introduction, even though there are many differences between good and bad touchpads. You all have probably experienced ‘laggy’ response times on notebooks and smartphones/tablets.

Last week, we got the opportunity to sit down with executives and engineers from Synaptics and discuss the current and future trends in the world of touch, which become a pervasive way how we interact with computing devices of today – notebooks, tablets, smartphones, check-in kiosks, infotainment systems and so on, and so forth.

Touch Technology
To understand the level of innovation that Synaptics is bringing with a technology named ForcePad, we need to take a look at how touchpad actually works and where the secret sauce lies. First and foremost, a standard touchpad featured simple profile sensing technology. You have a grid of sensors consisted of X and Y channels, and based on your input (pen, tip of the finger) the projected signal would guestimate where your input is moving. The technology was also known as resistive touch and unfortunately, this technology had a lot of drawbacks, giving birth to contemporary systems such as trans-capacitive image sensing e.g. capacitive touch.

Capacitive touch consists of a series of receivers and transmitters (instead of channels), and every overlap of receiver and transmitter features a capacitor. This technology enabled more precise use of bare fingers, but still susceptible to misdetection, which results in lack of precision.

Furthermore, several mobile phone designs experienced jittering issues when the phone is connected to the charger, due to filtering of the current. Working on resolving these issues, Synaptics won many design wins in the PC, Tablet and Smartphone markets. But the company is now ready to take one step further? into the world of three dimensions, but the third dimension is not the one you might think at the first moment.

ForcePad
According to Godfrey Cheng (Vice President of Marketing PC Division) and Ted Theochung (Vice President WW Marketing, Product Management, Business Development & Alliances), ForcePad represents the single biggest step in touchpad development. The company worked on creating a new touchpad with both the new single silicon which replaced multiple chips from the past (for example, one 2011 tablet had as much as 5-6 touch controller chips, all replaced with a single one). The new Touch Controller ASIC enabled the control sensor to build a three-dimensional capacitive image – position, width and force. As the name implies, Synaptics developed force detection to enable a more immersive experience.

Quite a good example where ForcePad could be used would be computer games and the professional 3D applications. By applying force of up to one kilogram (2.2lbs), sensor array will detect up to five fingers on a single pad. We have tried several demonstration applications, and were quite impressed with the responsiveness. Even though the demonstrating device was a Lenovo Ultrabook running Microsoft Windows 8 operating system, we believe this technology could change the world of mobile gaming. Once the company is able to put its ForcePad technology on its bread and butter product, the ClearPad (capacitive multi-touch sensor, up to 1mm thinner than the competitors) – mobile gaming could start moving away from conventional digital and analog controls.

In order to achieve that, the ForcePad brings 6-bit, 15 gram resolution with no less than 64 pressure levels. In terms of fidelity on a flat surface, this is as good as it can currently get. We also asked Synaptics’ representatives why the company did not go with a 8-bit resolution, which would enable a finer level of detection (for pens). The answer was that even though the pad would be capable of handling 8-bit precision, the response time was a paramount and there were no differences between 6- and 8-bit devices. Given the very imprecise nature of human hands, Synaptics believes they’ve found the sweet spot which should enable them an edge over the competition.

Where?
The ForcePad is not exclusive mobile device. We found out that there will be desktop models coming to market as well, even though the identity of brands and manufacturers were not disclosed at press time. The existing Ultrabook design wins from HP, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo and Sony only go to show that Synaptics established themselves as the bearer of premium experience, with the biggest battle being showing the Far Eastern vendors that 10 or so cent saving on a touchpad (yes, these components are fairly cheap, yet very important part of your computing experience) and ruining the consumer experience. Naturally, we’ve seen different design claims by multiple touch vendors, but we see potential in just three manufacturers – with Synaptics leading the market.

We believe that the ForcePad has a place as a companion (or replacement) to traditional mice on the desktop computer with the introduction of Windows 8. After having used Windows 8 and seeing the features that Synaptics and Microsoft have built into it, there is no doubt that having something like a ForcePad or any Synaptics touchpad would prove extremely valuable.

From the looks of it, ForcePad just might be on the verge of touching the future. We will follow up with more details on ClearPad and Keyboard in our follow up article.