Kindle 4 can improve on Kindle 3 via optical touch

Mr. Bezos was talking about the Kindle 3 on the Charlie Rose show and mentioned that having a touch layer disrupts readability because it adds glare and reflects objects.

However, there is an easy solution for adding touch without disrupting readability that Amazon should consider for Kindle 4.

IR sensors can be used to give Kindle 4 touch without disrupting readability

My PC is an HP TouchSmart (it’s got a multi-touch capable monitor) and it uses IR sensors in the frame around the screen. It’s just like the red infra-red security beams they show in movies that involve stealing diamonds in form-fitting clothes. You break one of the beams and it registers a touch.

There isn’t any physical touch layer to disrupt reading. The IR sensors would be around the frame/border of the eInk screen and wouldn’t get in the way.

This is how the HP TouchSmart’s screen works -

  1. There are infra-red sensors around the frame of the screen.  
  2. When your finger is about half a centimeter away it triggers the sensors.
  3. You don’t have to actually touch the screen. Just tested this multiple times. Plus it works with a pen or a finger.
  4. An x coordinate and a y coordinate are calculated corresponding to your touch (or touches). There must be some algorithm to approximate what point on the screen your touch was intended for. Since there are a lot of beams disrupted and we know the coordinate each represents we can approximate the exact point you intended to touch with your finger.
  5. The IR sensors convey this information to the PC and it indicates a touch.

You basically get a multi-touch capable screen without having to add any physical layers to the screen.

We can also add algorithms that ignore your palm or hand resting on the screen. That would let the IR sensors capture handwriting and the Kindle 4 could be used as a Notepad. 

We could easily place IR sensors along the edges of the eInk screen. Checking out my Kindle 2 and the eInk screen is already slightly recessed and there probably is enough space to fit in IR sensors.

Could Kindle 4 handle optical touch?

We know the reason Kindle 3 isn’t using touch is because of readability. However, are there other considerations?

  1. Battery Life Issues – This may or may not be an issue. If it is an issue the solution to this would be to use a proximity sensor – turn on the IR sensors only when a user’s hand comes near the screen. 
  2. The Touch sensing would probably not be as good – There’s no denying the touch would probably not be as good as it would with an actual physical layer. However, optical touch is still much better than zero touch.
  3. Perhaps it is a distraction – Well, Touch adds to usability by making things easier. It’s not really distracting from reading unless you specifically make an effort to create touch based apps that are a distraction from reading.
  4. The cost – Not sure of this since don’t really have any information on the cost of these IR sensor powered touch screens.
  5. Weight and Fragility – Would it be easy to break the IR sensors? Would they add a lot of weight? The answer is probably no and no.

We basically get to add a killer feature (even though it isn’t strictly required for reading it is a killer feature) and we get to do it without compromising on the quality of reading. It’s definitely a feature Amazon should consider for Kindle 4.

Optical Touch is easier than a lot of the alternatives

We’ve seen Amazon explore a lot of interesting ideas for letting users interact with the Kindle – Kindle Electronic Pen, Kindle Gesture Recognition, Multi-touch technology from TouchCo.

Each of these have specific drawbacks – An electronic pen would be an entire new purchase and people would keep losing it, Gesture Recognition sounds a bit complicated, and TouchCo’s technology probably requires a physical touch layer. Plus all of these haven’t yet been implemented. Two are patents and one (TouchCo) is in development mode.

With IR sensor based optical touch you have lots of companies implementing it and it’s a proven technology – HP has been selling TouchSmart computers for close to 1.75 years.

Whatever objections there might be to using optical touch in Kindle 4 there’s one very strong argument for incorporating it.

Qualcomm is already doing it with Mirasol

Qualcomm has a video of Mirasol color eInk screens at SID 2010 and it’s claiming a mirasol display with Optical Touch (it’s at 00:40 in the video) -

mirasol shows two 5.7″ XGA displays

1. mirasol Display with Capacitive Touch
2. mirasol Display with Optical Touch

If Mirasol can do it there’s no reason Amazon can’t introduce it as a killer feature in Kindle 4 or in Kindle DX 3.

Will Amazon actually add optical touch to Kindle 4?

That question has an easy answer if you believe Kindle 4 is going to use Mirasol screens. In that case one out of the two touch technologies Mirasol is showing off will probably make it into the Kindle 4.

Going with Qualcomm and its optical touch screen would deliver four key features in one go – A color screen, video support, super fast page refresh speed, and touch. With the optical touch screen there’s no loss in readability since there is no physical touch layer to cause harm.

Basically, if Amazon incorporates the Qualcomm Mirasol screen with optical touch in Kindle 4 we’ll probably get a release that outshines even the current Kindle 3 release. Chances are that it’ll be at a higher price point and it makes you wonder if there’s place for a new member in the Kindle family – Kindle Pro or perhaps Kindle Color.

In case Amazon doesn’t go with Qualcomm Mirasol it should still consider adding optical touch technology. Kindle 3 is a very impressive release and Amazon is going to have to add some solid improvements in Kindle 4 to make sure it measures up. Adding optical touch gives you touch capability without hurting readability and its definitely worth considering for Kindle 4.

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