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Quantum Mechanics Adds A New Dimension to Touch

by Jonathan Anderson | UX Magazine
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New tech enables pressure-sensitive touch interactions.

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:

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:

The 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.

Similarly, 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.

post authorJonathan Anderson  |  UX Magazine

Jonathan Anderson | UX Magazine,

I am a tech-focused jack of all trades and the editor-in-chief of UX Magazine. I'm 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, I am also a senior advisor to Didus, a recruiting and career development company focused on user-centered professionals. As well, I'm engaged as the Managing Director, Product Strategy & Design for Dapperly, a fashion-oriented software product startup, and am the Principal of First Day, a small private equity and consulting company. From 2005 to 2009, I helped found EffectiveUI, a leading UX strategy, design, and development agency focused on web, desktop, and mobile systems.

I’ve been fortunate to participate in work that’s on the leading edge of user-centered strategy and design, customer experience, and software development. Everything is converging around an increased attention to the quality of user experiences, around web-enabled or web-like software, and around technologies that can create unified experiences across multiple platforms, devices, and applications. I’ve built on my experience at UX Magazine, EffectiveUI, and in writing my book to undertake a major project to find ways to make dramatic improvements to the user-centered field and to increase the perception of user-centered design, research, and technology as being core strategic values.

My work can be very hard to explain because what I do day-to-day is extremely varied since my role is usually to be a jack-of-all-trades. If I’m performing any one job function this week or month, it’s always in the broader context of fulfilling the needs of that business (whatever they might be) and in the even broader context of the private equity holding and management activities of First Day. 

My primary value has been to be an adaptable, fearless, fast-learning manager of and versatile resource to a large number of small businesses, where I hold the line in diverse functions while the companies are too small to hire specialized professionals for any given part of their business. This means I’ve had my hands in almost every aspect of starting, growing, and managing a small business, including finance, accounting, legal, management, HR, marketing/brand, PR, IT, resource management, facilities, general operations, corporate governance, project management, product development, change management, and many others.

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