Mobile touch screens could soon feel the pressure

We’ve made the leap from resistive to capacitive touchscreens that are more accurate—and multitouchy—so what’s next? Screens that feel how

hard you tickle them.

Peratech, a U.K. company, has signed a $1.4 million deal to license its pressure-sensing touch-screen technology to Japanese screen manufacturer Nissha, which makes displays for companies including LG and Nintendo. Peratech’s technology is one of several approaches that can be packed into portable devices. But it uses a novel quantum mechanism to sense pressure, and this promises to be more sensitive and more efficient than the other approaches.

Peratech, which was spun out of a research lab at Durham University in 1996, uses an electrically conductive material dubbed a quantum tunnelling composite (QTC). Quantum tunnelling happens when you bring two conductors close together, but with an insulating layer still between them, and electrons jump between the two conductors. Peratech’s way to do this is with a polymer that changes resistance as you apply force for the insulating layer, so that bottom line, screens using this tech can tell how hard you are pressing on the screen, since the sensors are able to tell within two micrometers of how far in the screen is bending.

In an interview with MIT, Philip Taysom, Peratech’s CEO said, “these are polymer materials that change their resistance as force is applied,” So as force is applied, these particles are brought closer together. “As they come into proximity, they allow quantum tunnelling,” he added.

Patrick Olivier, a human-computer interaction and computer graphics expert at Newcastle University, in the U.K., says that pressure sensing has largely been limited to large screens with cameras mounted behind them. An example is Microsoft’s tabletop system, called . This approach works by using a technique called frustrated total internal reflection, where the camera detects light from within the screen itself as it is refracted by a finger that makes contact with the screen.

Jeff Han, founder of New York-based , a company that has pioneered the development of large pressure-sensitive, multi-touch interfaces, says that Peratech’s approach is one of many that could bring pressure sensing to mobile devices. “There have been many efforts to augment touch screens with strain gauges or force-sensing resistor sensors situated at the mounting points of the screen,” he said.

While there’s other tech out there for pressure-sensing screens, Peratech says that using quantum tunnelling means that its material is more sensitive to pressure than competing materials such as carbon composites. It also means that the sensors draw no power unless someone applies pressure. The company says the sensors can be fitted to existing screens relatively easily, and can be manufactured using standard printing methods.

The first gadgets with Peratech’s sauce are coming out as early as April, so we’ll able to poke things with that much more intent.