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

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