Synaptics looks to boost touchpad functionality

Future touchpads could include user-defined gestures and haptics technologies

An Intel executive last week suggested it was abnormal to interact with a laptop using input devices like touchpads, but Synaptics is out to debunk that notion by making touchpads more user-friendly.

The company is eliminating the click buttons to increase the size of touchpads, and is also looking to add new touchpad gestures to simplify routine PC tasks. Users will be able to design their own touchpad functions using custom gestures, Vena said.

For example, drawing A on a touchpad could take users directly to Amazon's Web site, said Mark Vena, vice president of Synaptics' PC business unit. The technology is just one way to boost the usability of touchpads and could be applied to multiple applications.

"The whole notion of creating custom gestures and doing that in an intuitive way is something we are spending a lot of time on," Vena said. A particular announcement date for the feature couldn't be provided by the company.

Bringing quicker shortcuts to launch applications through touchpads could bring the usability that tablet PCs couldn't achieve, said David Daoud, a research manager at IDC.

"The tablet PC hasn't taken off as much as many wanted it to," Daoud said. Touch screens could ultimately take off, but versatile touchpads could fill the role until users get more comfortable interacting with laptop screens.

There is also growing interest in making better use of touchpads for functionality like image manipulation, Daoud said. Gesture technology already offered on Synaptics touchpads includes using one or multiple fingers to jump between pages in an e-book, rotate images or zoom into documents.

Synaptics is also looking to bring haptics to touchpads, in which a vibrating touchpad can notify users of certain events. For example, if a user receives an e-mail during a meeting, a buzzing sensation in the touchpad can notify the user of the event, Vena said. That could be helpful if a user doesn't want a laptop chiming during a meeting.

"There's all kinds of things in the haptics area that could be potentially interesting to us," Vena said.

Haptics are already being used in devices like cell phones and GPS devices. Additionally, the technology is being researched for use in mice and keyboards. Mobile-phone makers like Nokia, Samsung and Research In Motion use haptic technology to provide feedback to users on cell phones.

Synaptics is also looking at tiny touch-based LCD screens to replace touchpads, but that has limited usability and versatility, Vena said. Many companies and PC makers have already talked about similar concepts. For example, Microsoft's SideShow concept places a tiny LCD on a laptop's surface so users can read e-mail messages or check a flight reservation without switching on a computer.

"The problem with that is cost," Vena said. PC makers look at the overheads when building laptops, and touchpads aren't expensive, costing anywhere between US$3 and $4. "When you start talking about replacing your touchpad with an LCD, you are then talking about $40 or $50," Vena said.

A graphical user interface (GUI) and applications also need to be built around the LCD-based touchpad to make it usable, which could require a lot of work, Vena said. "I don't see that in the short term. I see the large touch-screen stuff happening a lot quicker."

Synaptics' immediate focus, though, is eliminating touchpad buttons with its Clickpad technology, functionality that Apple offers in some MacBook laptops today. The technology builds click functions inside the touchpad surface.

"It allows you to put a larger touchpad in a smaller space," Vena said. A touchpad based on Clickpad technology will be incorporated in laptops and netbooks starting by the end of the year, he said.

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