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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  • jhoff80 - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    Any idea if Thin Touch is the technology Microsoft is using in their Touch Cover? Reply
  • Wizzdo - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    Do these keys offer pressure sensitivity? Then you could increase the "range" of options for each key and perhaps do away with the Shift , Caps Lock and Fn keys and perhaps many others shrinking the size of the keyboard and speeding up many aspects of typing. Not to mention that the keyboard could now become a viable "music" keyboard. Reply
  • ripster55 - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    http://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/commen... Reply
  • nevertell - Monday, August 20, 2012 - link

    Well, recently the quality of the laptop keyboards I've used has come down significantly.
    Even thinkpads don't come with normal keyboards anymore.
    The chiclet style keyboards don't offer a good enough feel, they are a lot harder to touch-type. My X200's keyboard, whilst relatively small, is still miles ahead of most new dell's, macbooks and the latest thinkpads. Aesthetics are fine as long as they don't interfere with the basic functionality of the keyboard. The key travel is small, you can't really feel if you've pressed a button.
    And then there's this, something innovative, but yet I don't feel as if this is going to improve laptop keyboards at all :(
    I'm all for thinner laptops, but this consumerisation of most laptops makes me feel as if there are only consumers left on this planet and the content available to us is made by corporations only. God damn, the hard core consumers can use their tablets, the
    rest of us could use something which is usable.

    Also, another great gripe with laptops these days is that the touchpad is so big I often press down on it whilst typing, this is just plain irritating for me. We don't need massive touchpads, we need small, yet precise touchpads. I think this is another place that is ripe for innovation- a mouse replacement for laptops.
    Reply
  • Will.Rubin - Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - link

    What is the average key activation force? (Or even a general impression as compared to typical laptops if you don't have any way of measuring the force.)

    As someone with severe early onset arthritis I can't find one laptop keyboard I can use anymore because the keyboards are so stiff. This would be wonderful if it lead to an option for softer keyboards.
    Reply

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