Gearing up for the shift to Windows 8, Synaptics wants PC makers to switch to an entirely new kind of touchpad, called the ForcePad. We recently met with the company in New York to take this new touch interface, which eliminates moving parts and adds pressure sensitivity, for a test drive.
Synaptics invented the touchpad in 1995, and since then, touch has become an increasingly important part of our interaction with technology (and the company now makes touch screens for phones, tablets, and laptops as well).
But laptop touchpads have also been a frequent pain point for consumers, with laggy response, tiny mouse buttons, and poor multitouch gestures. At least some of the problem stems from PC makers switching between suppliers at will to save on production costs, so many laptops have had inconsistent touchpad experiences.
Another part of the problem is the antiquated notion of clicking down on a physical button of some kind, whether it's a set of tiny left and right mouse buttons, or entire quadrants of the pad itself.
The original design for touchpads involved sacrificing finger space to fit in those left and right buttons, making finger navigation difficult. Later came the style known as the clickpad, as seen in the last several generations of MacBook laptops, and now systems from Dell, HP, and others. Those pads removed the separate buttons, building left and right click functions into the bottom corners of the pad, which was hinged at its top edge to click down when pressed.
My main issue with clickpads was that the hinged design was unwieldy. Since simply tapping (usually with one finger for a left click, two fingers for a right click) worked fine, I'd much rather have a flat, immobile pad, which would involve fewer moving parts, and would not restrict interaction to certain zones on the pad itself.
The new ForcePad from Synaptics is exactly what I had been looking for. The new type of pad, which we will hopefully see in Windows 8 laptops next year, has no physical click buttons at all. Instead, it is a flat, fixed pad, allowing the entire touchpad module to be thinner -- which can be helpful when designing thin ultrabook laptops.
On top of that, the ForcePad adds pressure sensitivity. These touchpads can tell how hard you're pressing, and with how many fingers, recognizing 64 levels of pressure from up to five different fingers at once.
During a brief hands-on demonstration, Synaptics showed off both a standalone pad (a bulky non-commercial unit built for software and hardware designers to test) and a ForcePad installed in a previously released Lenovo laptop.
Two custom software apps, seen in the video above, demonstrated the pressure sensitivity. One tracked the position and pressure of the five fingers of your hand. The other used two fingers held in a stationary position to fly a virtual airplane by applying different levels of pressure to the left and right.
At least in the demo setup we tried, the ForcePad's full flat, tap-anywhere surface felt comfortable and worked well. The addition of a third dimension -- with pressure acting as a kind of z-axis -- is exactly the kind of feature premium ultrabook and Windows 8 laptop makers need to compete with Apple, which has to date offered the best touchpad experience in a laptop by a very wide margin. Of course, that does not preclude the possibility of upcoming Apple laptops using a ForcePad unit or something similarly advanced.
We expect to see laptops using this new pad sometime next year, and early Synaptics ForcePad hardware will be used by a students in a contest at October's User Interface Software & Technology symposium.