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Microsoft Research designs touchscreen that predicts how you’re going to touch it

Capacitive touchscreens changed the way we interact with mobile devices, but they haven’t evolved much at a fundamental level since then. Apple is trying to augment touchscreens with 3D Touch, but Microsoft Research is looking to create a touchscreen you don’t even have to touch. The pre-touch sensing prototype smartphone can trigger different types of interactions based on how you’re holding the phone and where your fingers are without actually touching the glass.

Microsoft isn’t the first to design a screen that can register input without actually being touched. Samsung does something similar with inductive technology in its Note styluses, and Sony had a very similar system for a brief period back in 2012. Sony’s “Floating Touch” platform was only deployed on one phone, and software support was limited. Android didn’t have extensive support for hover actions as it’s not really a mouse-based OS. Microsoft is taking similar technology and imagining what a platform might be able to do if it was designed with pre-touch sensing in mind.

There are two basic types of capacitive sensors in touchscreens. There are standard mutual capacitance sensors that you’d find in other screens, then there are self-capacitance sensors. Microsoft’s prototype screen uses self-capacitance sensors because they have extremely high sensitivity that can detect your finger hovering an inch or two away. In the past, these have only been able to sense a single input, but Microsoft appears to have addressed that shortcoming.

The demo video shows some of the interesting interactions that are possible with Microsoft’s test device. It can do basic things like pull up video controls or reveal hyperlinks on a web page when you hover. Where things get interesting is with grip sensing. Because the self-capacitance sensors in this display can map multiple inputs, the phone can tell how you’re holding it. That means the phone can bring up different controls when it senses a hover event based on how you’re holding it. Standard video controls can be substituted for a subset of controls that are available on one side or the other, and the interaction with those controls can be better suited to one-hand use. This system can also combine touch and hover detection to pull up context menus wherever is comfortable rather than requiring multiple actions.

Pre-touch sensing as demoed by Microsoft can do more subtle things as well. By differentiating between rapid and precise motion prior to a tap, the phone can figure out what you intended to do with that tap. For example, a precise tap that happens to land on just next to a small button could be mapped to the button because it’s likely that’s what you were going for in the first place. Likewise, precise motion prior to a swipe could be interpreted as text selection rather than scrolling.

This research is being presented at the Human-Computer Interaction (CHI) 2016 conference this week. It’s still just a neat tech demo right now, but maybe in the future someone will use it in a real device.

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