ForcePhone Brings 3D Touch-Like Tech to All Phones

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No iPhone 6s? No problem. New software could give any smartphone the capacity to sense force or pressure on its screen and body.

Developed by University of Michigan engineers—and inspired, in part, by a Batman movie—ForcePhone offers a new way to control your mobile device.

Apple last year introduced its own haptic feedback software for the 12-inch MacBook (Force Touch) and iPhone 6s and 6s Plus (3D Touch). The latter's display supports multiple pressure points; push slightly for a preview of something (location on a map, a photo), or all the way to open it in full screen or the accompanying app.

But unlike 3D Touch, ForcePhone doesn't need a special screen or built-in sensors.

"Now this functionality can be realized on any phone," Kang Shin, computer science professor with the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said in a statement. "We've augmented the user interface without requiring any special built-in sensors."

The phone's speaker emits an inaudible tone—outside the range of human hearing, but picked up via vibrations by the handset's microphone. Subsequently, the force of a finger pressing the screen or a hand squeezing the body changes that tone, and the downloadable software translates those shifts into commands.

"ForcePhone increases the vocabulary between the phone and the user," Shin said.

The idea of harnessing a handset's existing features—speaker and mic—came from the 2008 Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight, in which Batman hijacks Gotham City's smartphones to create a sonar system to track the Joker.

"I thought it was an interesting idea to turn smartphones into a sonar-based system and felt this could lead to new applications to address challenges faced by smartphone users," doctoral student Yu-Chih Tung said.

Calling ForcePhone "the next step forward from a basic touch interface," Tung said the low-cost technology could complement other gestured communication channels, as well as voice commands.

Early usage ideas include dialing 911 by squeezing a smartphone in a certain pattern; a different sequence could turn music on or flip the pages of a website.

The researchers will present their software late next month at MobiSys 2016 in Singapore.

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