The last big things to happen to trackpads were the addition of multitouch gestures and elimination of a dedicated button. The next big thing is going to be force detection. We've seen force detection pop up a couple of times before — most recently in the keyboard cover for the Microsoft Surface — but with the introduction of the Synaptics ForcePad, that technology is about to go much more mainstream.
The introduction of the ForcePad is more radical than you think; gone is the mouse click you've come to love over the past three decades. In its place comes the pressure tracking, which can detect five fingers at once, and supports five new gestures and actions which take advantage of the new technology (keep in mind that third-party developers are only just starting to play with the ForcePad as we speak). And given that Synaptics has worked with Microsoft to develop a set of specifications and guidelines for the OEM design of trackpads, the ForcePad is fully optimised for the new operating system and all its touch-friendly perks.
So what are the benefits of the ForcePad? The biggest benefit, Synaptics says, is that it will make your PC trackpad feel more accurate and responsive. The difference in trackpad size and manufacturing techniques from PC makers has made the experience vary wildly from laptop to laptop. No two trackpads ever feel alike. With the ForcePad, there's an added dimension of touch sensing, and Synaptics says this tech will allow the trackpad to constantly auto-calibrate itself on the fly, always ensuring optimal, and consistent, peformance no matter what laptop you're using.
Secondly, because there's no click mechanism in the pad, the ForcePad takes up less space in your laptop, which could allow for thinner PCs (and possibly less things to break). At only 2.8 millimetres thick, Synaptics likes to tout that the pad is thinner than your average slice of cheese.
And finally, it means all sorts of fun new gestures. Instead of constantly swiping and scrolling, you can just push down at the end of a gesture to make the action continue. One example Synaptics gave me was for movie playback. Say you wanted to fast-forward. Instead of clicking 3-5 times to get to 8x or 32x playback, you could just tap the fast-forward button and hold it down. The harder you press down, the faster it skips forward. When you let go, it plays back at normal speed. Or imagine rocking your fingers left and right to move through th Windows 8 home screen. Subtle, but an awesome idea nonetheless.
And of course, there's gaming.
But trackpads aren't the only area Synaptics are out to change forever. Synaptics is also working on a new keyboard called the ThinTouch. Not only does the downward movement of them require less height (2.5 millimetres vs. 3-6 millimetres), but the entire surface of the keyboard has been equipped with a capacitive touch sensor. Yes that means thinner laptops (or more room for other components). Yes that means more accurate keystrokes. But it also opens up the possibilitiy for advanced gestures, where you could brush the keys with your fingers to activate certain gestures.
But just because there's less downward motion doesn't necessarily mean the keys will be mushy. Synaptics designed the ThinTouch keys to have a slight sideways motion to them, which apparently makes the keyboard feedback feel deeper than it actually is. Synaptics conducted blind testing of the product against other popular laptop keyboards and claim that subjects found the feedback of the ThinTouch to be as satisfying, if not more satisfying than Apple's keyboard in many cases.
But the introduction of these technologies means little if they never end up in a product. That's why it's worth mentioning that Synaptics has an overwhelming command of the PC trackpad market — upwards of 70 per cent — which will certainly help their case as they move into keyboards as well. Chances are the trackpad you're using now is utilising Synaptics technology. So not only will the ForcePad appear in PC laptops in the years to come, it will likely appear in the majority of PC laptops. Force detection is the future, and its a future you're going to experience sooner rather than later. [Synaptics]