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Industry Focus: Interaction in Consumer Devices

Tue, 03/10/2009 - 10:34am
Christopher Keuling, Associate Editor

A look at how motion sensing, tactile feedback, and digital ink are giving the consumer a better feel in their end products.

Christopher_150It’s a fact that consumers want end products that give them the most user interaction. Two of the most popular examples on the market are Apple’s iPhone and Nintendo’s Wii. These end products serve very different purposes to their desired consumers, but share electronic advances that make these products, amongst others, an interactive experience for the user. In this month's Industry Focus, we talked to six different companies whose technology helps enable a more interactive user experience through motion sensing, tactile feedback, and digital ink.

Motion Sensing
Benedetto VignaAccording to Benedetto Vigna, group vice president and general manager of the MEMS and healthcare, RF transceivers, and sensors product division in the analog, power, and MEMS group at STMicroelectronics, the semiconductor-based MEMS accelerometer is a key component for motion sensing in consumer electronics. Vigna states that “the accelerometer is able to allow for an end product, such as a remote for the Wii, to be quick, nimble, and agile.”

There are a couple of implementation issues that arise during the creation of these devices. Vigna states that one of the initial issues in integrating the accelerometers into consumer devices is that the components themselves are expensive pieces each and that a large quantity wasn’t blended into manufacturing. “Accelerometers are now being produced to the point where they cost $1.00 each in decent volumes,” says Vigna.

Chad LucienChad Lucien, vice president of Freespace product and corporate strategy at Hillcrest Labs, says that “the sensors found on the market are not developed for the applications they are typically found in, such as motion sensing for the Wii. The raw data isn’t accurate enough to integrate into the devices to replace them since this data causes cursor jitter and drift that is particularly sensitive to environmental factors.”

Hillcrest LabsLucien states that, within the next few years, we will start to see more unique remote form factors since more control will be put on the screen, so fewer buttons will be needed. Figure 1 is a sample design of a remote with two buttons and a scrolling wheel. However, Bruce Lancaster, vice president of gaming at Logitech, claims that “there is room for both ‘traditional’ controllers and new motion-based controllers in the future. We have witnessed the opening of a great new market for expanded game play, but this does not mean the traditional gaming experience is dead.”

Tactile Feedback
Another growing trend in the consumer device market is the use of tactile feedback. Rick Hampton, vice president of sales at CIT Relay and Switch, and Jerome Smolinski, senior product Rick Hamptonmanager at C&K Components, say that a metal dome, or an array of switches on a keyboard, is what causes the user to feel tactile feedback. Smolinski adds that the dome is typically used since it “only consumes power when the device is on, while a switch and vibration (sensitive switch and sound) found in devices such as computers or the LG Chocolate consume power even in sleep mode.”

“Gold contacts are preferred over silver contacts in consumer devices,” Hampton states. “On a dry circuit application, less than 0.4 VA is required to power the switch, and silver doesn’t enable the circuit to have enough power since it oxidizes.”

Hampton claims that the cost of the dome for the producer is from 3.5 to 7 cents, which depends on a few factors. The factors are if the switches are right angle or straight, have SMT or through-hole configurations, and how much gram force it can withstand. “The pressure a dome can take ranges Jerome Smolinskifrom 60 g to 500 g with 200 g being the standard found in consumer devices,” says Hampton.

In the next few years, the dome will disappear little by little since haptic switches will be more of the trend, according to Smolinski. “The reason haptic switches aren’t being used yet is because of the size of the technology,” Smolinski continues. “Right now, it’s about the size of the computer and it will be difficult to be able to get it into a consumer device like a cell phone.” Hampton feels that domes will be continued to be used, but they won’t be getting any smaller. “If the dome’s size gets any smaller, the human finger wouldn’t be able to press a single key without hitting another one.” Hampton says.

Digital Ink
Michael Marcum, director of product management at Wacom Technology, states that digital ink appears when a user touches a pen-like stylus to a display with a sensor mounted underneath it. “The technology was originally designed for niche markets, but it is moving to the consumer market as a mainstream communication tool,” Marcum adds. The basic level of functionality is the same, but the levels of pressure and the designs will be different.

Michael Marcum“The design of the product for professionals is thinking more about the ergonomics since the product has to be tailored for eight to 10 hours of continuous use a day,” Marcum says. “For consumers, the design will be more about the aesthetics since consumers will use the product casually.”

The consumer trend won’t start for five to 10 years because the hardware is there, but the rest of the pieces need to fall together and the consumer needs to get excited regarding the technology, according to Marcum. “The technology will be able to work in input screen sizes from 2” to 46” in devices such as cell phones, gaming devices, home appliances, remote control systems for a media center, and networking appliances,” Marcum claims.

Conclusion
The input from these companies indicates that a more user-friendly experience is coming in the next few years. The idea to have a remote control outside of the long, rectangular design with multiple buttons sounds intriguing for both designers and consumers. This will enable many designs to appeal to consumers. The round wheel designed by Hillcrest Labs looks to be a good start in that department.

From what Jerome Smolinski said in regards to haptic switches being looked into for consumer devices, it sounds like more user interaction will come. There are a vast amount of possibilities for applications and cell phone designs if haptic switches are used. It seems that today’s tactile devices will remain the same until the art of making haptic switches compact and affordable gets perfected.

Digital ink enables a more user-friendly experience since it allows for a user to use their body to provide functionality. Once digital inking is put on other consumer devices within the home and on cell phones, it will make life much more interactive.

Benedetto Vigna, STMicroelectronics
Chad Lucien, Hillcrest Labs
Jerome Smolinski, C&K
Rick Hampton, CIT
Michael Marcum, Wacom

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