Touch screens are part of what makes a smartphone smart, and without a touch screen as a user interface we would have to navigate our way around and input information using mechanical buttons, just like in the olden days.
The first touch screen phone dates back to 1992 and the IBM Simon, though that was rather limited. All you could do on the screen was dial phone numbers. Nokia came out with a much more versatile touch screen smartphone in 2000, but it was not really until the first iPhone was launched in 2007 that the true versatility of what a touch screen could achieve was realised; multi-touch had arrived.
Touch screens might appear to be sophisticated, but they are still quite limited. We can swipe them, flick them, and pinch zoom them, but really that is just about all. A really smart touch screen should be controllable by many other gestures, and that seems to be where the latest smart touch screen technology is heading.
A prototype smartphone has been built at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University that really does have a smart touch screen. So smart in fact that it can detect the difference between being touched by a fingertip, a fingernail or a knuckle.
The phone, which will be marketed by Qeexo in Pennsylvania, is based on the Samsung Galaxy S3 Android smartphone. However it has been equipped with a very sensitive vibration sensor and an app called FingerSense which detect the different acoustic signals and vibration patters that arise from different kinds of touch.
There are alternative ways of setting up the phone, but in a typical set up a fingertip touch could be used to select a menu object, a tap with a knuckle could be used to represent a right click of a computer mouse opening up the menu.
Our hands are very versatile; in fact it is their versatility that played a significant role in humans becoming the dominant species. We use our hands to play musical instruments; we use them to convey our feelings and emotions, both positive and negative; and we are acutely aware of the implications of hand gestures by others. Given all this capability, touch screens are amazingly simplistic in how they interpret gestures.
FingerSense is certainly a big move forward, but touch screens still have a long way to go before they get really smart. Currently the Qeexo smartphone is only available though special mobile phone deals in the US, though its developer is currently in talks with several major manufactures; FingerSense could appear in standard contract phones in the UK in the near future.