New software promises to bring 3D Touch to any smartphone, no special hardware needed

By , May 30, 2016

ForcePhone teaer 001

Apple brought 3D Touch into this world with the introduction of the iPhone 6s in September 2015. Fast forward nine months and Android competitors are still struggling to outfit their devices with an array of force-sensing display sensors.

We know that Google’s upcoming Android N will bring system-level support for pressure-sensing screens, but now folks at the University of Michigan have developed a technology that would bring 3D touch-like features to most smartphones, without making any hardware modification.

Everything is just software

Dubbed ForcePhone, it works by using a phone’s microphone and speaker to create an acoustic detector, along with an accelerometer sensor to estimate motion and speed.

A smart algorithm combines the data to determine a force event on the display. Basically, a phone sends out inaudible tones at a frequency higher than 18 kHz, and then picks up how they’re reflected.

Although that frequency is outside the range of human hearing, an ordinary smartphone microphone can still pick up the vibration caused by the sound.

“When a user presses on the screen or squeezes the phone’s body, that force changes the tone,” researchers explain. “The phone’s mic can detect that, and the software translates any tone tweaks into commands.”

In the video below, Yu-Chih Tung, a computer science PhD candidate at University of Michigan, talks about the technology.

A demo version of ForcePhone for smartphones will be shown off at the MobiSys 2016 show in Singapore, which runs from June 27 through June 29.

Increasing the vocabulary between the phone and the user

“You don’t need a special screen or built-in sensors to do this. Now this functionality can be realized on any phone,” they wrote. “We’ve augmented the user interface without requiring any special built-in sensors”.

Sensing force applied to the display is just the beginning: this technology could also detect how you squeeze the device in your palm to provide other valuable shortcuts.

For instance, a phone could dial 911 after detecting being squeezed in a certain pattern. A different pattern might turn the music on, flip a page on the screen and so forth. Of course, no commercially available device has a pressure-sensitive body as of yet.

Wrapping it all up

As fun as ForcePhone is, I’m not entirely convinced that it can replicate the precision that only specialized hardware brings to the table. 3D Touch requires a hardware component to detect various degrees of pressure being applied to the screen.

With ForcePhone, a user can push a bit harder on a screen to unlock a menu of additional options, similar to right-clicking with a mouse, but that’s about it.

Not only does Apple’s implementation of 3D Touch currently provides two pressure thresholds for Peek and Pop gestures, but also takes advantage of Taptic Engine to deliver haptic feedback during 3D Touch interactions.

And given that 3D Touch senses various degrees of pressure (test it yourself by gradually applying pressure to a 3D Touch-enabled Home screen icon), Apple could easily unlock additional shortcuts with a software update.

Your two cents?

What do you think of the ForcePhone technology?

Does it stand a chance of being successfully commercialized by Android smartphone vendors and was Apple right to implement 3D Touch features using an array of 96 specialized force sensors embedded into the iPhone 6s display?

Source: University of Michigan

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  • czbird

    Your kids and pets will surely thank you when you bring such device near them lol.

  • Burge

    there’s are few jailbreak tweaks that do this without any high pitch sounds. The device just needs to know how long your holding the icon for to get a different response from the touch.

    • This is no force touch.. I mean, with these jailbreak tweaks your device still can’t sense if you press your finger harder or softer. These jailbreak tweaks just enables the functions you have on iPhone 6s when you pressing harder, witha long press. It’s different thing a long press and a deep/hard press.

      • Burge

        But at the end of it holding a icon for a faction longer results in a different result. Yes it can only detect two types of touch but it proves you don’t need to have the newer devices to have a feature like this. And I’m sure that Apple or other device manufactures can work out how to get more functions from how long you hold the icon for.

      • Shinonuke

        If you think about the 3D Touch being used in a racing game where you’re able to apply the gas or break pedal where the degree of pressure pressed against the screen determine the rate of acceleration or deceleration then the jailbreak tweaks will not be able to give you the same results.

      • It’s the same exact result.

      • But with a different way, and it feels different.

      • With 3D touch you can control how many pressure you will apply so for example in e peak ‘n’ pop will get different result. You can’t do this with a long press.

      • Burge

        I bet you could because it would recognise how long you’re holding the screen for. It just needs someone to create this.

      • it fails when i need the force touch fast.

  • Gabriel Anaya

    I doubt this will be very accurate, not to mention may not work as well if the environment is noisy.

    • And drain all your battery because it will use your speaker and your microphone all the time, and if you hearing music will not work because your speaker it will playing music..

  • iDude

    do that on iphone 6plus without case, for sure in less than a month it would look like a crumpled paper.

  • Sharde

    This would be really cool

  • Yes, but what 3D touch does isn’t a long press. We’re talking about two different things. What you mean, is that the older devices who doesn’t support 3D touch (the ability of the display to sense pressure) can do the same tasks (for example show a menu) with a long press instead of a harder simple press. Ok, but still it isn’t the same. Still the screen can’t sense the amount of pressure you applying to.

  • Tommy

    Android competitors are struggling to release 3D Touch? For the first time, they don’t actually care cuz it’s a stupid function that no one uses and it ain’t worth copying. Pls bring some better features Apple!

  • Bob

    Since the first day 3DTouch came out, there was a jailbreak tweak to do exactly the same (name I’ve firgotten since I don’t have a jailbreak anymore and use a 6S with 3DTouch). It was not based upon how long you press the screen but it measured the thickness of the pressed fingerprint. More or less pressure results in a wider or smaller area your fingertip fills on your screen. Although I like the idea of this technique of using ultrasone sound, I think (as well as 3DTouch itself) it’s too much technique for what it really wants to accomplish. Just measuring the thickness of the pressed area will do the same trick without any additional hardware. This whole ‘thing’ reminds me of the NASA who tried to invent a kind of ballpoint which would be able to write in an upside-down or zero-gravity situation and put a lot of money and effort into it. While the Russians just used a normal (wooden) pencil…

    • NotTodayThx

      Had to say this NASA thing is a semi myth as ppl tell the story as if the Russians didn’t over think it or spend a rubel, truth is the Russians were desperate for a solution to the “tiny particles of lead/graphite floating off and causing a tragic short circuit” as well as NASA.
      The US were just first with the 0g pen but the Russians adopted it asap
      #TIL (;

      • Bob

        Besides these ‘inventions’: the whole NASA is a fake hence we live on a flat earth and space is just an (created) illusion!