New software claims to bring 3D Touch to any smartphone, no special hardware needed

Apple brought 3D Touch into this world with the introduction of the iPhone 6s in September 2015. Fast forward nine months and Android competitors are still struggling to outfit their devices with an array of force-sensing display sensors.

Engineers at University of Michigan have developed a technology that would bring 3D touch-like features to most smartphones, without making any hardware modification.

Everything is just software
Dubbed ForcePhone, it works by using a phone’s microphone and speaker to create an acoustic detector, along with an accelerometer sensor to estimate motion and speed.

A smart algorithm combines the data to determine a force event on the display. Basically, a phone sends out inaudible tones at a frequency higher than 18 kHz, and then picks up how they’re reflected.

Although that frequency is outside the range of human hearing, an ordinary smartphone microphone can still pick up the vibration caused by the sound.

“When a user presses on the screen or squeezes the phone’s body, that force changes the tone,” researchers explain. “The phone’s mic can detect that, and the software translates any tone tweaks into commands.”

In the video below, Yu-Chih Tung, a computer science PhD candidate at University of Michigan, talks about the technology.

Increasing the vocabulary between the phone and the user
“You don’t need a special screen or built-in sensors to do this. Now this functionality can be realized on any phone,” they wrote. “We’ve augmented the user interface without requiring any special built-in sensors”.

As fun as ForcePhone is, I’m not entirely convinced that it can replicate the precision that only specialized hardware brings to the table. 3D Touch requires a hardware component to detect various degrees of pressure being applied to the screen.

With ForcePhone, a user can push a bit harder on a screen to unlock a menu of additional options, similar to right-clicking with a mouse, but that’s about it.

Not only does Apple’s implementation of 3D Touch currently provides two pressure thresholds for Peek and Pop gestures, but also takes advantage of Taptic Engine to deliver haptic feedback during 3D Touch interactions.

Does it stand a chance of being successfully commercialized by Android smartphone vendors and was Apple right to implement 3D Touch features using an array of 96 specialized force sensors embedded into the iPhone 6s display?

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