Force field: Apple’s pressure-based screens promise a world beyond cold glass

A piece looking at the technology behind the pressure sensing. My prediction: once people play with it they’ll find it hard to go back to the old way of doing things. Maybe typing on an touchscreen may one day feel natural, and maybe even enjoyable. 

Force field: Apple’s pressure-based screens promise a world beyond cold glass | Reuters:

SINGAPORE/TAIPEI | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND MICHAEL GOLD

By adding a more realistic sense of touch to its iPhone, Apple Inc may have conquered a technology that has long promised to take us beyond merely feeling the cold glass of our mobile device screens.

In its latest iPhones, Apple included what it calls 3D Touch, allowing users to interact more intuitively with their devices via a pressure-sensitive screen which mimics the feel and response of real buttons.

In the long run, the force-sensitive technology also promises new or better applications, from more lifelike games and virtual reality to adding temperature, texture and sound to our screens.

‘Force Touch is going to push the envelope of how we interact with our screens,’ says Joel Evans, vice president of mobile enablement at Mobiquity, a mobile consultancy.

The fresh iPhones, unveiled on Wednesday, incorporate a version of the Force Touch technology already in some Apple laptop touchpads and its watches. Apple also announced a stylus that includes pressure sensing technology.

As with previous forays, from touch screens to fingerprint sensors, Apple isn’t the first with this technology, but by combining some existing innovations with its own, it could leverage its advantage of control over hardware, interface and the developers who could wrap Force Touch into its apps.

‘Here we go again. Apple’s done it with gyroscopes, accelerometers, they did it with pressure sensors, they’ve done it with compass, they’ve been great at expediting the adoption of these sensors,’ said Ali Foughi, CEO of US-based NextInput, which has its own technology, trademarked ForceTouch. ‘Apple is at the forefront.’

TOUCHY FEELY

Haptic technology – a tactile response to touching an interface – isn’t new, even in mobile devices. Phones have long vibrated to alert users of incoming calls in silent mode, or when they touch an onscreen button.

But efforts to go beyond that have been limited.

BlackBerry incorporated pressure sensing into its Storm phone in 2008. And Rob Lacroix, vice president of engineering at Immersion Corp, said his company worked in 2012 with Fujitsu on the Raku-Raku Smartphone, an Android phone that could distinguish between a soft and firm touch to help users unfamiliar with handheld devices.

But most efforts have been hamstrung by either a poor understanding of the user’s needs, or technical limitations. A vibrating buzz, for instance, has negative connotations, causing most people to turn off any vibration feature, says James Lewis, CEO of UK-based Redux, which has been working on similar touch technology for several years.

The technology powering vibrations is also primitive, he said, meaning there’s a slight delay and a drain on the battery. Early versions of pressure-sensing technology also required a slight gap between screen and enclosure, leaving it vulnerable to the elements.

Apple seems to have solved such problems, experts said, judging from their trackpads and the Apple Watch. Indeed, the trackpad carries the same sensation of a physical click of its predecessors, but without the actual pad moving at all.

The result: In the short term, Force Touch may simply make interacting with a screen more like something we’d touch in real life – a light switch, say, or a physical keyboard. With Force Touch, the device should be able to tell not only whether we are pressing the screen, but how firmly. It should in turn respond with a sensation – not just a vibration, but with a click – even if that click is itself a trick of technology.

‘What we’re going to see initially is putting life back into dead display,’ said Redux’s Lewis. ‘We just got used to the cold feel of glass.’

HARD PRESSED

To be sure, mobile is not the first industry to flirt with haptics.

For example, for car drivers, Redux demonstrates a tablet-like display which creates the illusions of bumps and friction when you run your fingers over the glass, mimicking physical buttons and sliders so your eyes don’t need to leave the road.

Mobiquity’s technical adviser Robert McCarthy points to several potential uses of Apple’s technology – measuring the force of touch when entering a password, say, to indicate how confident the user is of their selection, or keying in a numeric passcode using different pressure levels as an extra layer of security.

While Apple’s adoption of the technology has awoken the mobile industry to its possibilities, it was pipped to the post by Chinese handset maker Huawei, which this month unveiled one model with what it also tagged Force Touch technology. Pressing harder in a photo app, for example, allows you to zoom in on a picture without the usual two-finger spread.

Other manufacturers are exploring how to make touching a device more friendly, and more advanced, says Freddie Liu, CFO of Taiwan-based TPK Holding Co Ltd, an Apple supplier.

‘This is just the beginning for Force Touch,’ he said.

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff and Michael Gold, with additional reporting by Reiji Murai in TOKYO; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Raju Gopalakrishnan)”

Factbox: iPhone 3D Touch suppliers and haptics companies | Reuters

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world

A piece I wrote for Reuters with Lee Chyenyee: 

(Reuters) – In the 1990s, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei visited the United States several times, hoping to learn from its leaders of industry about how to turn his Chinese telecoms equipment maker into a global company. On one trip in 1992, in the days before China had credit cards, he paid all his bills with cash from a $30,000 stash in his briefcase.

Sixteen years later, Ren was listed among Forbes’ 400 richest Chinese and Huawei was one of the world’s largest telecoms gear vendors, but the United States still treated him as an outsider. He was keen to win customers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint but had secured just $200 million of business in the U.S. in 2007 – in a $23 billion global market. Early that year, the United States effectively vetoed Huawei’s bid for U.S. networking equipment manufacturer 3Com on security grounds.

Outsider Ren pits Huawei against the world | Reuters

Carrier IQ Bits and Pieces

Some background about Carrier IQ before the hullabaloo started.

  • People had found about this before
  • Some in the industry questioned why such an expensive solution for a relatively simple problem
  • Data was available to ‘market researchers’
  • Software was installed on modems too
  • A lot of carriers were involved

This is not new. Several people have pointed this out before. This from December 2010: xda-developers – View Single Post – **warning** you can get your phone to a unrecoverable state:

On whether or not it’s possible for Sprint to dig up data after a complete Odin wipe may be debatable, but I lean toward supporting the “yes, they can” side. Sprint has been, for – as far as I can tell – a while, since the Moment at least, been including Carrier IQ in Android ROMs. Carrier IQ – which you can get more info on here (browse around there) is highly invasive, to the level of being spyware. It tracks signal data, application usage, and much else – its services and libraries are tied deeply into the system, to the point that killing just the client (not the server) will destroy the battery meter.

And this, even earlier, from a potential rival: Carrier IQ: Mobile Service Intelligence ?’s – DeadZones.com. They point out that Carrier IQ is very expensive, and has raised a lot of money, for something that is supposedly very simple (finding dropout zones). Commenters point out the pitfalls (lower battery life, data in the hands of faceless corporations):

I did not give consent for this and see the use of such software unethical. I can see no positive effect this can have for the end user. I can see many scenarios in which these corporations could heinously profit from it, though.

Back in 2008, it could claim, according to Company 2008: FierceWireless, Fierce 15 – FierceWireless, that

Carrier IQ’s client list includes Sprint and Sierra Wireless. CEO Quinlivan says the firm works with at least seven of the top 10 major OEMs. Look for the firm to increase its scale in the coming year through more vendor and carrier deals.

Huawei is a customer, not only for handsets, but also for modems: Huawei to Embed Network Diagnostic Tools into 3G Modems in 2009 says:

Announcing the partnership, Carrier IQ CEO, Mark Quinlivan, said: “These new cards will make for smoother delivery of Mobile Data services, improvements in Customer Care services, identification of network coverage gaps and increased awareness of actual user behavior.”

This from Sept 2010 Carrier IQ Powers Android Platform with Mobile Service Intelligence makes clear a number of things.

Experience = behavior for Carrier IQ, so this is not just about logging dropouts:

On-device measurement of the mobile user experience is the key to better understanding user behavior and ultimately optimizing product offerings to match market demands.

This data was not just available to the telcos. The press release also includes an unlikely end-user:

Carrier IQ enables mobile operators, device manufacturers, application developers and market researchers to improve their offerings based on direct insight into the customer experience.

As of last year, 12 leading vendors were using Carrier IQ:

Deployed on over 90M devices from 12 leading vendors worldwide, Carrier IQ is the leading provider of Mobile Service Intelligence solutions that use mobile devices to provide detailed metrics in a highly secure environment.

Real Phone Hacking

Interesting glimpse into the real world of phone hacking–not the amateurish stuff we’ve been absored by in the UK–by Sharmine Narwani: In Lebanon, The Plot Thickens « Mideast Shuffle.

First off, there’s the indictment just released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which, in the words of Narwani,

appears to be built on a simple premise: the “co-location” of cellular phones — traceable to the accused four — that coincide heavily with Hariri’s whereabouts and crucial parts of the murder plot in the six weeks prior to his death.

Indeed, the case relies heavily on Call Data Record (CDR) analysis. Which sounds kind of sophisticated. Or is it? Narwani contends that this could have been manufactured. Indeed, she says,

there isn’t a literate soul in Lebanon who does not know that the country’s telecommunications networks are highly infiltrated — whether by competing domestic political operatives or by foreign entities.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. The ITU recently issued two resolutions [PDF] basically calling on Israel to stop conducting “piracy, interference and disruption, and sedition”.

And Lebanon has arrested at least two men accused of helping Israel infiltrate the country’s cellular networks. What’s interesting about this from a data war point of view is that one of those arrested has confessed, according to Narwani, to lobbying for the cellular operator he worked for not to install more secure hardware, made by Huawei, which would have presumably made eavesdropping harder. (A Chinese company the good guy? Go figure.)

If this were the case–if Lebanon’s cellular networks were so deeply penetrated–then it’s evidence of the kind of cyberwar we’re not really equipped to understand, let alone deal with: namely data manipulation.

Narwani asks whether it could be possible that the tribunal has actually been hoodwinked by a clever setup: that all the cellular data was faked, when

a conspiring “entity” had to obtain the deepest access into Lebanese telecommunications networks at one or — more likely — several points along the data logging trail of a mobile phone call. They would have to be able to intercept data and alter or forge it, and then, importantly, remove all traces of the intervention.

After all, she says,

the fact is that Hezbollah is an early adherent to the concept of cyberwarfare. The resistance group have built their own nationwide fiber optics network to block enemy eavesdropping, and have demonstrated their own ability to intercept covert Israeli data communications. To imagine that they then used traceable mobile phones to execute the murder of the century is a real stretch.

Who knows? But Darwani asserts that

Nobody doubts Israel’s capacity to carry out this telecom sleight of hand — technology warfare is an entrenched part of the nation’s military strategies. This task would lie somewhere between the relatively facile telephone hacking of the News of the World reporters and the infinitely more complex Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in which Israel is a prime suspect.

In other words, there’s something going on here that is probably a lot more sophisticated than a tribunal can get behind. I’m no Mideast expert, but if only half of this is true it’s clear that cellphones are the weakest link in a communications chain. And that if this kind of thing is going on Lebanon, one has to assume that it’s going on in a lot of places.

Broadband on a Moving Bus

I don’t know if it’s anything to do with my recent column  (probably not) about the need for flat data rates(“The Price is Wrong,” from Nov 2’s WSJ.com), but m1 of Singapore is now offering unlimited data for its mobile broadband plans. So now you can get 512 kbps for about $15 a month, 1.8 Mbps for about $25, and 3.6 Mbps for $45.

I use the 512 kbps service and frankly, it’s fast enough for me. Of course, with the island state embracing free WiFi this all becomes a bit academic at some point, but I still find it easier to crank up the Huawei modem than log in to the WiFi, and there’s something about surfing on a bus that is positively liberating. Not something I ever tried on the moving robbery carts that are buses in Jakarta, I must say.

M1 broadband