Darren Waters

May the force be with you

  • Darren Waters
  • 18 Apr 08, 13:57 GMT

Forget multi-touch, or tilt control accelerometers... Microsoft researchers have been working on force sensing technology that would let you bend/twist/stretch/squeeze your handheld device in order to control it.

The research has been carried out at Microsoft's Cambridge lab by James Scott, Lorna Brown and Mike Molloy. You can read their research paper here (pdf). All the images in this post come from the research paper.umpc228.gif

The technology allows users to apply force to their portable device in order to carry out on-screen actions, such as flip a page in a document or switching between applications.

The researchers noted that more and more devices are becoming, in effect, large screens, with fewer physical buttons. They believe the technology could work in parallel with existing human computer interfaces, like multi-touch and tilt.

The technology uses four sensors that are embedded into the casing of the device so it does not have to be made out of special flexi-material.


The authors state: "With force sensing, the user interacts with the casing of the device, turning an otherwise passive component that just holds the device together into an active input surface."

To research the tech, the scientists made a prototype using a Samsung UMPC and gave visual and audio feedback to the user when applying force.

The scientists wrote: "The current prototype provides a click sound when enough force is applied to reach the end of the animation and lock in the new view.

"We plan to incorporate richer audio cues in future, eg cues which also match the physical action taken such as a crumpling sound or page-flicking sound."

The scientists noted: "Compared to shaking or tilting the device or using a touch screen, force sensing allows the screen to be kept at the most natural viewing angle and un-obscured."

The report makes some recommendations about changes needed to the sensors used as well as some conclusions about how much force is needed to be employed.

For example, should more force equate to a quicker pace of action, such as turning the page?

They concluded: "It allows mobile devices to avoid using up valuable form factor space on keys and therefore to be smaller, and it turns the passive casing into an active input thus maximising the utility of the whole surface area of the device."

So what do you think? Do you feel the force?


  • Comment number 1.

    I think some us oldies, with slightly dodgy joints and twitchy, easily-tired muscles may struggle to become totally proficient with a device such as this. There's something very straight forward about individual keys/buttons; you only have to press them, there's no great skill or subtlety involved. On the other hand, it's hard to know these things without getting your hands on a device, and when you do all your preconceptions can be quickly shattered. So, for now, I'll just say it's a very interesting idea and I can't wait to get my hands on the finished product.

  • Comment number 2.

    I was a games tester when the consoles started using analogue buttons and I wasn't impressed. If the more you push a botton the faster/stronger the on-screen reaction is ment to be you're always pushing ahrder and harder trying to get that extra 1% out, which either results in a broken button or numb thumbs with an indentation the exact shape of the button.

    It's a very fine line between sensitivity and durability.

  • Comment number 3.

    To be honest ive not yet found a single one of these reactive devices worthwhile. The Wii pulls it off because its a static device, but using that device above would just be a nightmare on a busy bus or train, as indeed it can be to use a touchscreen phone or PDA. You cant beat simple buttons for feedback and control in any situation.

  • Comment number 4.

    @Rovex33 @HardWorkingHobbes

    Have a read of the full paper - it's quite interesting.

    The researchers address those concerns about how much force people use and how easy it is to use on a bus etc.

  • Comment number 5.

    Excellent for Financial Management!

  • Comment number 6.

    A very interesting concept and very impressive graphics, and a good paper.
    Last year a patent was issued to IBM using force sensors to navigate a handheld screen.
    I wonder if the twisting action of the handheld computer will fatigue elderly hands and wrists?
    The Apple iPhone is an easy handheld computer to use when navigating the screen, just one hand will work.
    Lyndsay Williams
    Girton Labs Ltd Cambridge

  • Comment number 7.

    Very interesting concept, and very impressive graphics. A good Paper.
    There was a patent issued to IBM last year using force sensors to move around on a display.
    I wonder if the twisting action will fatigue elderly hands.
    For ease of navigation of a display on a handheld computer, the Apple iPhone is easy and can be used with just one hand.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm not surprised Microsoft came up with this.

    All those people thumping, slapping, or throwing their Windows-powered kit to the ground and stomping on it - now Microsoft has a great way to claim that's really people simply "power cycling" things :)

    Just pray the final product doesn't use USB.

  • Comment number 9.

    You should see what Apple are working on. Makes this stuff look archaic and outdated.

  • Comment number 10.

    this is rediculous, the only thing that this i going to be able to do is break. Touch and tilt control still will be on top of twist and punch, as no one wants to work this hard to operate their handheld or phone. Who would want to fold then twist then flip then punch they handheld just to send a message, i'd prefer just touching send.

  • Comment number 11.

    I thought the idea about the blog section on the front page of the BBC website was to give a flavour of the blog(s) and encouarge readers to click through. In this particular instance I cant 'Read More' as there isnt anything else to read. The whole kitchen sink has been thrown in

    I also object to having to scroll down the left hand column of my BBC frontpage as it now resembles a rather long piece of tiolet paper rather than a compact 'all info on a screen view'

  • Comment number 12.

    It seems to me that companies are deliberately releasing technology to outdo
    there competitors without really thinking whether there is a need, or market for such
    an enhancement. This new idea is flawed with problems. How long will the item last before it breaks, whether to much pressure has been applied, or an injury is sustained by an elderly person etc?
    Touch screen is not just sufficent, but serves the purpose very well indeed. An "etch a sketch" system is not the way forward and just an attempt to ridicule
    technology and earn a quick buck. What can we expect next? A system you can talk to?
    blow air onto it to move pages? laser contolled movement? It's all rather silly. Don't get me wrong I'm a champion for technological advances but lets not get beyond ouselves and invent things for inventions sake!

  • Comment number 13.

    mrcopolo @ 12

    System you can talk to: Dragon Dictate

    Laser controlled movement: SmartNav

    A lot of tech is invented just for the geek factor (iPhone, anyone?), but more that is accused of being "toys" were developed for a serious purpose - accessibility

    Not to mention the things that were developed to be "toys" that actually end up being useful almost by accident.

    All three of your "What next" concepts would be assistive tech.

    Are they still "for invention's sake"?

  • Comment number 14.

    @Moonwolf : Funny. I'd expect people to have that reaction with Linux.

    @cosmicronson : What exactly is Apple working on? Last time I checked, Apple was so closed that nobody could even view their research site (if there was any). I'm betting they have their own research failures.

  • Comment number 15.

    quikboy2 @ 14

    I'll take your word for it, I don't know any Linux users (did Ashley ever post his impressions of Ubuntu in the end?) :P

    I think Apple's next project should be codenamed the iBrick.

  • Comment number 16.

    Microsoft Research Cambridge do lots of hands on experiments on new technology, and some may win. The "twister" may turn out to be a great new games controller for Xbox controlling a car or flight sim. Keep an open mind!
    Lyndsay Williams


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