Saturday, January 16, 2016

Touchscreens are about to get a radical upgrade

Within the space of about a decade, touchscreens have revolutionized how we interact with electronics all the way from smartphones and tablets to laptop and desktop computers and appliances and cars. Most vehicles sold today feature a touchscreen front and centre, which allows car manufacturers to get rid of the sea of buttons that once dominated the instrument panel.

That's both good and bad. Good because it simplifies things for carmakers - fewer buttons for designers and engineers to test, certify and fiddle with, and easier upgrades because all the features are in software. Bad because using a touchscreen while driving can be ridiculously frustrating. That's because conventional touchscreens lack the tactile feedback - i.e. feel-it-with-your-fingers - of a good old fashioned button. With a touchscreen, there's no hitting a button or activating a switch or slider by feel. You've got to use your eyes to confirm you're hitting the right spot on the otherwise flat, featureless surface. And if you're looking at your screen, you're not looking at the road. Which I'm pretty sure is lousy for safety.

But what if a touchscreen could replicate the touchy-feely world of those beloved old buttons and switches? The giant auto parts maker Bosch says it has the answer: A so-called next-generation "haptic" touchscreen that vibrates in a very precise manner to create the feeling of pressing a real button.

The screen is called Neosense, and unlike conventional haptic screens that simply vibrate to confirm a touch or a press, this one is far more precise. It vibrates so precisely and is tuned so carefully that when you run your finger over graphic images of buttons and actual features, you can actually feel them as buttons and features. You can even "feel" what it's like to activate sliders and other types of controls.

Similarly, you can brush your fingers over certain elements and feel them without actually activating them - meaning no more accidentally bumping the screen and pressing the wrong thing. When you mean to press on a virtual button, it feels like you've actually pressed a button.

The company is currently in talks with a number of major carmakers, and these trick new screens should start taking over from older-tech touchscreens over the next few years.

The possibilities are, to quote a cliche, endless. And it can't come a moment too soon to an industry so in love with tech for the sake of tech that it's forgotten why buttons, switches and sliders were so perfect from a user interface perspective, and what we lost when we allowed them to be almost completely replaced by something vastly inferior simply because it looked cool.

Your turn: Does your vehicle have a touchscreen? Are you a fan? Or not?

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