Sharp announces new multi-touch display with built-in “scanner”

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Sharp has announced a forthcoming 3.5″ LCD display with a built-in multi-touch digitizer. The panel doesn’t use resistive technology, nor capacitive. Instead, the display has embedded photodetectors that “see” your fingertips or “scan” a business card, post-it note, or similar surface. Sharp expects to begin shipping samples next month and quantity shipments by Spring 2008. There’s no indication of price, but in a translation from an account of the announcement made in Japan it appears that Sharp is indicating that prices will be consistent with existing technologies. That’s a very good sign. It also looks like Sharp is targeting consumer devices, which also suggests that cost won’t be prohibitive.

To me this is game changing. If this technology pans out in the marketplace, expect to see interactive devices of all kinds that not only rival the iPhone’s gesture capability, but go far beyond. I can see this display technology finding a home in cellphones, digital cameras, MIDs, UMPCs, Tablet PCs, desktop displays and more.

It also could give a boost to Tablet PCs and UMPCs. Here’s why: For the first time, the mobile computers will not only support digital paper, but they’ll include a low-res scanner. Just place a piece of paper over the display and a digital version of the paper is captured. There’s no physical scanning at this point so expect the captured images to be low resolution, but nonetheless human readable. That doesn’t mean that one day there won’t be piezoelectric transducers or something someday dithering the display pixels and effectively increasing the resolution of the display or even creating a stereo view of the contact surface or what’s near the display. Shape from shading is another strong possibility which could lead to some rather interesting apps.

With a built-in scanner in the display, just imagine students at a library or people exchanging business cards or….you get the idea.

Now there are a few blanks to be filled in. Besides the cost, I’m not sure about pressure sensitivity. No indication’s about power-consumption one way or another either and whether ambient light is an issue. Also, I’m guessing you’ll still want a high-res digitizer for handwriting analysis where handwriting is desired.

There’s also the issue of display size. To begin with Sharp is launching 3.5″ displays with 320×480 resolution. That’s fine for a cell phone, but isn’t going to be sufficient for a UMPC. Sharp is indicating that they have plans for multi-touch displays reaching 12.1″, I hope that those make it to market sooner than later. In fact, if I were a Tablet/UMPC OEM, I’d be checking out this technology as soon as possible and if it works as well as I think it might, I’d be lining up the next generation devices to use it.

Up to this point I’ve been strongly advocating dual mode devices–those with touch and an active digitizer built in. I’ve also become a fan of capacitive touch over resistive technologies, because I see it as being more sensitive, durable, and easier to algorithmically analyze. However, with the introduction of Sharp’s multi-touch sensor I can see the equation changing. Maybe optical multi-touch will supplant capacitive or maybe we’ll see three mode systems. We’ll have to see what the tradeoffs are and where the capabilities are complementary.

This technology also points out something I’ve voiced before, that Microsoft’s Surface Computing initiative–especially in terms of its multi-touch technologies and APIs–should be coupled with those developed in the Tablet/UMPC space. There is going to be an overlap of APIs. There is going to be overlap of apps–especially as Sharp increases the display size. It’s going to happen. Why develop APIs and apps that compete with one another? Doing so, no doubt helps to keep things focused for the front-line developers, but is any of this that hard or unpredictable? I don’t think so. The question is how fast can Microsoft and the OEMs gain adoption of the technology before you know who steps in? I’m also concerned that if Microsoft continues to view and showcase the Surface Computer device as a high-end, $10,000 device that this will discourage or pigeon hole the adoption of multi-touch technology elsewhere. That would be a shame. UMPCs and Tablet PCs should be early adopters of this technology–it’s already discouraging that the iPhone is leading here. It shouldn’t be.

[Found via Engadget]