SAN JOSE, Calif. What could you do if your multi-touch smart phone supported use of all ten fingers? Synaptics Inc. is not entirely sure, but it has enabled the capability on a new Series 3000 capacitive touch screen.
"We believe people will think up a lot of cool ideas," said Andrew Hsu, a senior product manager for the company. "The jury is still out on how useful multi-finger displays are going to be, but innovations only come from applications written once developers have the hardware," he added.
Cypress Semiconductor said it has had support for ten-finger input on its capacitive touch screen solution for about a year.
In a demo, Hsu used the device to play chords on a virtual piano keyboard on a handset's screen. The Series 3000 also recognizes shapes so a key or other object can be placed on the display to activate an action such as allowing network access.
The Series 3000 includes the entire subsystem—the chip and display overlay with embedded sensors. It draws 4 milliAmps power in continuous mode and significantly less in normal use. That compares to 1.5 milliAmps for the existing two-finger products, now renamed Series 2000.
The new high-end component supports displays up to eight diagonal inches. It is more resistant to noise than the existing product and can support a plastic or glass overlay substrate.
Synaptics has also rolled out a new low-end product, the Series 1000, which only supports a single point of touch. The company will price the device to compete with high-end resistive touch screens hoping to drive touch screens into mass market feature phones.
The resistive screens typically cost about two dollars or less per diagonal inch of display. Synaptics would not discuss pricing except to say that all deals involve custom work for OEMs and thus typically involve up front non-recurring engineering fees and charges based on the volume sales of the end system.
The Series 1000 also sports versions with either very small or no visible sensors. That helps ensure the overlay blocks minimal or no space on the underlying display.
The Series 1000 products will be generally available in August, and the Series 3000 will follow by the end of the year. Top tier phone makers already have early engineering samples and development kits and are expected to launch systems with the touch screens by the end of the year.
With the new products, Synaptics has updated all its chip designs to 350nm process technology. The chips use the relatively old process because they include a significant amount of analog content and are focused on hitting a low cost.
One of the pioneers of multi-touch capacitive screens, Synaptics has design wins in many smart phones including the G1 Google phone from Taiwan's HTC. But competition has been heating up in this space since Apple Inc. popularized multi-touch displays with the iPhone.
Alps, Atmel, Cypress and Texas Instruments supply chips for capacitive touch screens today. Avago, Maxim and other mainly analog chip makers are expected to jump into the market soon.
Synaptics became in 1996 one of the first companies to design a single chip for capacitive touch screens, then focused on notebooks. It spent six years trying to bring the concept to smart phones and supported multi-touch capabilities in its software drivers well before the advent of the iPhone.
"We've had this technology for some time, but it took a company like Apple to popularize it," said Hsu.