Touch screens can only get so small before the user's fingers start to block most of the information on them, but a technology called nanotouch that's being developed by Microsoft Research and the Hasso Plattner Institut in Germany is designed to allow a touch-screen device to be controlled from its backside, preventing fingers from occluding the screen.
"We're using a principle called pseudo transparency so that we can pretend we can see through the screen, and as we do this we see the document we're manipulating, we can see the finger and we get no occlusion and precise manipulation," said Patrick Baudisch, a research scientist with Microsoft Research and a professor and chairman of the Human Computer Interaction Department at the Hasso Plattner Institut in Potsdam, Germany.
Baudisch had several prototype 2.4-in. screens on display at the Computer Human Interface (CHI) conference in Boston. One of the displays was the pseudo transparent display, which showed a finger on the display screen when a real finger touched the back of the display. Another prototype featured a first-person shooter game where the player guided an armed character through the game using the back of the device.
On the back of the prototype is a gray-and-white grid with four raised nubs, similar to those on the F and J keys on a QWERTY keyboard. Baudisch said those are for orienting fingers on the back of the device.
Nanotouch grew out of a previous iteration, called Lucid Touch, that incorporated a larger display and a webcam.
For Nanotouch technology to be used in mainstream devices, Baudisch said it has to scale down in order to fit in new, smaller devices. For example, he said that in a year or two, a mobile audio player the size of a coin could be created while in maybe five years, a cell phone could be developed using the technology.
Baudisch said there are touch-screen watches on the market, but he noted that some of them require styluses for controlling the screens. Baudisch's plan is to embed Nanotouch technology on the wristband of a watch so that the user has greater control without occluding the display with his finger.
"It's not like we're waiting for a specific time to start doing this, but every year as technology shrinks we can pack more and more technology into these devices," Baudisch said.