Earlier this month Synaptics announced the acquisition of Pacinian, a company that focused on physical keyboards that used capacitive touch. To expand, Synaptics has to look beyond clickpad and capacitive touch controllers into adjacent markets. The keyboard industry made sense and it’s ripe for innovation.

Based on Pacinian’s research into capacitive keyboards, Synaptics is announcing ThinTouch - a capacitive keyboard that promises a thinner profile and similar performance to a standard mechanical keyboard.

 

ThinTouch uses capacitive sensing to determine when a key is pressed, while still allowing the key to move. In a normal keyboard, you press down on a key, it travels perpendicularly to the keyboard and actuates a switch or sensor. ThinTouch gives you the impression of similar travel distance, but instead of going straight down it actually travels diagonally towards you. By moving at an angle the key travels the same physical distance, but in a smaller z-height. There’s some more materials trickery afoot that makes the process feel like a normal keyboard, but we won’t get to talk about that for another few months.

 

Since there’s no switch below the surface of the key, backlighting becomes an easier problem to solve. With a simpler mechanical setup there’s also potential for an improvement in durability.

 


Thickness reduction from a standard chicklet to ThinTouch keyboard, the feel is pretty similar

 

Synaptics had four demo keys set out, one from an Apple keyboard, one from an Acer and two using ThinTouch. The ThinTouch keys didn’t feel identical to those from the Apple and Acer notebooks, but they were relatively close and not necessarily worse. I’d still have to feel an entire keyboard made out of ThinTouch keys to be convinced, but the effect is pretty impressive. 

 

The reduction in thickness due to implementing ThinTouch can be significant. Synaptics is promising up to a 50% thinner keyboard design. Even if that’s at the upper bound of what’s possible, any reduction in keyboard thickness can directly translate into more room for cooling, larger batteries or allow for a thinner notebook.

 

Things get really exciting when you start exploiting the fact that individual keys are touch sensitive. A notebook could sense where your hands are, offer more sophisticated text prediction, etc... While I wasn’t completely sold on ForcePad, ThinTouch is really exciting to me. It’s clear physical keyboards aren’t going away, so real innovation in this space is much needed.

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  • xtphty - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    "Mechanical" was the wrong word to use here Anand, in the keyboard context most people take that as tactile-feel, which is far from what this is. I would love to have one of those on a laptop, but dont think its physically possible considering the linear actuation distance is quite important for that, and not plausible in a thin space. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    Well, a mechanical scissor switch is a mechanical switch and better than pure rubber domes. Reply
  • Yojimbo - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    how are rubber domes not mechanical? if it relies on elasticity of metal it's mechanical, if it relies on elasticity of rubber (or whatever they use), it's not? Reply
  • lowlymarine - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    "Mechanical" in keyboards has been appropriated to mean certain types of switches where metal springs are used rather than rubber. Similar to "organic" foods, and just as technically wrong - all non-touchscreen keyboards are inherently "mechanical" just as all food is inherently "organic." Reply
  • ciparis - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    I think the wording is fine, as will most who have ever used a membrane or other touch-based keyboard, I suspect. Reply
  • JBird7986 - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    I was sitting here thinking the same thing, lol...
    (Typed on a Unicomp Model M...)
    Reply
  • ViRGE - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    It will be interesting to see how this turns out. As opposed to Synaptics' efforts to replace clickpads, keyboard keys do take up a lot of space relative to the thickness of modern subnotebooks, so there's definitely room for improvement. Though I have my doubts about whether that space will be used to fit additional battery capacity given the sheer density (and resulting weight) of batteries. More likely there's a target weight, and any savings will just be used to lob off some thickness.

    Anyhow, the million dollar question here is whether the limited amount of travel is going to be enough travel to maintain the viability of touch-typing. Having worked with those damn projection keyboards, the lack of feedback there just obliterates touch typing. For touch typing to work you need to be able to blindly acquire your orientation and be able to rest your fingers on keys.
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    I think by "touch typing" tey mean to sense the amount of force put onto the keys, not necessarily "typing by barely touching, rather than pressing". Reply
  • esse09 - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    Touch typing means to type without looking at the keyboard, using your finger muscle memory. Not to type by barely touching, which is the worst thing a typist could do. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    This will definitely be interesting to experience on a full keyboard. I'm something of a keyboard snob, and I've held the belief since the introduction of Ultrabooks that making laptops that thin is really hurting the feel of the keyboards. Maybe this will change my mind? Maybe -- but I doubt it. Reply

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