How Force-Sensing Technology is Changing the Face of Domestic Appliances
It’s hard to imagine a user interface scenario in home appliances that won’t benefit from the enhanced controllability that force-touch sensing delivers.
Every now and then a new technology emerges that we cannot possibly see a use for in everyday life, but very soon we can’t imagine what we would do without it. Perhaps there is no better example than smartphones and tablets, but here is a great example that is relevant to home appliances in our kitchens and laundries, as well as other in-home applications like heating controllers.
Let’s fast forward a few years at how we might look back.
Do you remember when all our kitchen equipment had these clumsy switches and knobs? Click, clunk, turn—every time you wanted to change a setting, you had to look at the controls while fiddling around to achieve the desired setting. Now we pick up the hand blender, and squeeze it—delicately for low speed, and a firmer grip for the high speed action. It’s so intuitive, matching how a chef might handle a knife. Even common kitchen appliances have started to become an extension of who we are.
Also, remember how much trouble it was to keep a cooker clean when all that stuff accumulated under the control knobs? And those early attempts at touch controls that we worried about the kids or even the dog touching and switching on by accident. The new ‘Firm touch for ON; light touch for control’ on the latest cookers are so much safer, particularly with latest health and safety regulations. Plus, all appliances are ‘wipe-clean’ sanitary.
Can you remember those old microwaves with an array of buttons and tiny touch pads with labels too small to read, and you never even used most of the functions? Now we have clear, intuitive, interactive controls that respond to the pressure of our touch.
Once we had a kitchen and laundry packed with appliances that all had wildly different controls for user-interaction. Now, form follows function across all appliances, and we all talk about how we customize the amount of pressure we apply to controls and smart surfaces.
Looking back, how did we live without the user-friendly and adaptable interfaces— especially people like me with arthritis, or other conditions that restricts dexterity? And remember when appliances just stopped working? Eight out of 10 times it was a faulty switch or knob—moving parts unpredictably failed due to wear and tear. It was always a family holiday when we had to call the technician to install a new switch panel and then we were charged almost as much as a new appliance would cost! Now we have force-related touch controls with no moving parts that last longer, and actually tell the appliance company how they’re aging.
Back to today. Consumers are unlikely to comprehend the benefits of a revolution in the user interaction improvements until they have actually experienced it, which creates a bit of a chicken and egg quandary. A customer survey or focus group rarely uncovers a desire for functionality that doesn’t already exist in some form, other than the ubiquitous notion: “I want it to work like my iPhone.” The dilemma for brands, their product designers and developers, is whether breaking with convention will increase desired differentiation—winning market share, revenue and profit margin—or will be rejected for being too different from what customers are used to.
What enables product companies to drive new technology into the market? Does a brand determine whether a company can be a product leader, or hold off and become a ‘follower’? What enables companies to make that change? Today we see companies struggle with that challenge, but there are also examples of companies overcoming the innovation challenge with their supply chain partners and using technologies that not only improve their product, but also reduce required design efforts, lower the total cost of the landed product, and improve end-user safety.
What technologies will allow us to break out of the current genre of user interfaces? We believe one of them is QTC, or Quantum Tunnelling Composites.
QTC is a printable ink containing semiconductor particles in a polymer binder that leverage quantum mechanics to provide a function that other materials cannot. The greater the force applied, the more quantum tunneling effects increase electron flow through the polymer barrier, decreasing the resistance of the material from 100 KΩ to 100 Ω range—effectively changing a dielectric to a conductor with applied pressure. Removing the pressure has the opposite effect—turning the conductor back into an effective insulator. Most importantly when force is completely released no current flows; it is open circuit. All this happens in a sensor that is about as thick as a strand of human hair.
From a hardware point of view, QTC-based sensors at their most simple can be design-in as a pressure switch or a potentiometer. Measure and use its resistance to integrate its functionality into any electronic user-control design—no microcontroller needed to decode real touches. This means designers can easily integrate force sensors into today’s new designs as well as the next generation of user experience for appliances. Even in its most basic implementation a switch could be engendered with multi-functionality. Imagine a control on a cooker—perhaps a circular outline on an otherwise smooth surface of the front panel or hop top—which requires a deliberate and firm push by the user to switch the oven or hob ring on. Once it is switched on, the temperature is then set by pushing the same button… push the top part for up; bottom part for down. Push harder to make rapid changes, delicately for fine control. Setting or adjusting the control is a one-finger operation.
We leverage what we know about our QTC materials and design low-latency sensing solutions so that users feel an instantaneous response when they touch even the most complex sensor arrays we make. Low latency eliminates that irritating “Did it know I touched it? Why isn’t it doing anything? Shall I touch it again? Is it broken?” moment of concern that we so often experience with poorly implemented touch and force technologies.
There has already been a certain amount of integration of display touch technology in some appliances, but not a holistic approach to total user experience. This is most likely due to the limitations of existing touch-sensing solutions, and the fact that capacitive touch works with a feather-light degree of touch, offers no control through touch pressure, and performs poorly when the surface (or finger) is wet or greasy—a not untypical scenario in the kitchen.
In addition, as product designers want to map not only force, but location of the force to sense multiple points of gripping, twisting, or turning, we design that sensors scan a large number of touch points at the level of resolution—from 1,500s to 15,000 DPI or greater—needed for the application. This multi-touch, multi-force capability opens up a vast range of options for those defining and designing new home appliances and consumer electronics products. At its most basic, multi-force is used to make current touch panels for stoves, ovens, microwaves, and blenders safer where the user has to press with a certain force level to activate a function. I love my new oven, but accidentally turning on the broiler is about as easy as pocket-dialing someone, creating a material safety hazard if we don’t use the annoying lock function. Integrating force sensors would fix that problem.
Finally, one of the most exciting uses of QTC-based sensors is integrating them with and even into display technologies to create fully-interactive and adaptable user experience. By integrating with both curvable and rigid flat displays, we can vastly simplify button panels, scrollers, tumblers, grips and sliders. Force sensing makes the surfaces more intuitive to use, and the displays enable user experience designers to simplify and improve the control surface layouts on many of today’s appliances. Perhaps most importantly, force-touch display interfaces give brands the ability to create a ‘signature’ user interface—not only in look, but in the actual feel of its operation as well.
In short, it’s hard to imagine a user interface scenario in home and kitchen appliances that won’t benefit from the enhanced controllability that force-touch sensing delivers. Designers have started to embrace true tactile sensing technologies, and won’t be long before we look back and wonder how we ever managed before the force/touch revolution transformed our relationship with the electronic world.