UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 490 February 18, 2010

Quantum Mechanics Adds A New Dimension to Touch

Here's a case of an interesting new capability made possible by an even more interesting bit of science. The BBC recently reported that "hand-held devices could soon have pressure-sensitive touch-screens and keys, thanks to a UK firm's material that exploits a quantum physics trick." The UX/IxD possibilities enabled by adding a pressure dimension to touch interactions are as numerous as they are exciting.

This is accomplished using a material called Quantum Tunnelling Composite (QTC). As it turns out, QTC has been around since 1996, and is being developed by Peratech Ltd. The sensing capabilities of QTC extend beyond just touch. From Peratech's website:

Examples of potential sensing capabilities of QTC material

Peratech has come up with a very interesting collection of possible applications of their technology—definitely worth your time to peruse. I apologize if this is beginning to read like a Peratech press release, and we usually try to avoid drawing so much from a corporate website, but there's so much fascinating stuff on their site that UX/IxD folks should know about.

The science behind QTC is intriguing, as it relies on some Star Trek-esque quantum mechanical concepts. Here's a brief rundown by the BBC:

Spiky conducting nanoparticleThe composite works by using spiky conducting nanoparticles, similar to tiny medieval maces, dispersed evenly in a polymer.
None of these spiky balls actually touch, but the closer they get to each other, the more likely they are to undergo a quantum physics phenomenon known as tunnelling… Simply put, quantum mechanics says that there is a tiny probability that a particle shot at a wall will pass through it in an effect known as tunnelling.
Spiky conducting nanoparticles conducting electricitySimilarly, the material that surrounds the spiky balls acts like a wall to electric current. But as the balls draw closer together, when squashed or deformed by a finger's pressure, the probability of a charge tunnelling through increases. The net result is that pressing harder on the material leads to a smooth increase in the current through it.
Full article here, images courtesy of Peratech.

For science geeks, there's a more complete explanation (again, with apologies) on Peratech's site.

PANiQ garmentQTC already has some mainstream commercial applications, including in PANiQ wearable electronics by QIO Systems, and in a "Tier 1 mobile phone" (Engadget) using components from Samsung Electro-Mechanics. I'm excited to see broader-scale uses of the QTC technology that makes fuller use of its ability to detect the position and pressure of inputs, especially coupled with haptic feedback. After the mild letdown of the iPad, this is something to really look forward to.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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Jonathan (@first_day) is a tech-focused jack of all trades and the editor-in-chief of UX Magazine. He is also the author of Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software, published by O'Reilly Media. Through its partnership with UX Magazine, Jonathan is also a senior advisor to Didus, a recruiting and career development company focused on user-centered professionals. As well, Jonathan is Managing Director, Product Strategy & Design for Dapperly, a fashion-oriented software product startup, and he is the Principal of First Day, a small private equity and consulting company. From 2005 to 2009, Jonathan helped found EffectiveUI, a leading UX strategy, design, and development agency focused on web, desktop, and mobile systems.

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