CES 2013: Hands-on With Synaptics' Thinner, Touch-capable Sliding Key Keyboard

By Matthew Braga

Synaptics wants to build a better laptop keyboard – one that combines the company's past experience with trackpads and touch screens with a new keyboard technology it purchased last year

Here's a novel idea – take the guts of a physical keyboard, imbue it with the power of capacitive touch, and get the best parts of tactile interaction and a touch-enabled trackpad combined. Turns out, that's exactly what Synaptics brought to CES – but that's not all.

Synaptics' new touch technology is just one part of the company's plan to build a better, thinner keyboard than anything available in a laptop today. As ultrabooks push the boundary of how thin is thin, it's become difficult for traditional keyboard mechanics to keep pace. Scissor switches – found in most laptops, including the popular MacBook Air – can only be made so thin, so Synaptics opted for an entirely different approach instead.

More accurately, however, it was a company called Pacinian that did most of the legwork. Before its purchase by Synaptics last June, Pacinian was at CES 2012 showing off its ThinTouch technology, a new approach to keyboard design. Pacinian created a new keyboard mechanic that requires no moving parts, and does so with dramatically less key height – all by altering the motion of the keys to slide diagonally towards the user using a ramp, rather than up and down with a switch when pushed.

Though Synaptics has shown off early demos of its ThinTouch technology before using samples of individual keys, this is the first time we've seen a full-keyboard in a working concept device. Because no partner manufacturers have yet been announced, Synaptics demoed their ThinTouch technology using a retrofitted IBM ThinkPad X1.

"It gives you the illusion of full travel by sliding the keys sideways," Synaptics' Niamh Conlon told us earlier this week. The illusion isn't entirely foolproof, of course, and it's clear the ThinTouch keys are moving in a noticeably different way than what's found in current PCs. But after inputting a few paragraphs of text, we can't say our ability to type effectively was all that much worse. It may be different, but early impressions seem to indicate it's still good.

Of course, Synaptics technology strategist Andrew Hsu explained that usability tuning is still underway, and there are definitely areas where it shows. The spacebar often failed to recognize input unless pressed especially hard, and other large keys tended to respond less often than we would have liked. There's no reason why the sliding ramps can't be modified to accomodate differently sized keys, however, and Synaptics engineers are still figuring out what configurations work best.

Plans for capacitive touch, meanwhile, are at this time less clear. The ThinTouch keyboard is capable of detecting at least ten separate points – enough for each finger on a typical set of hands. It's not often that multi-touch devices actually require full support for that many points, evn if the capability is present, but this is obviously a a rare use case where such high-performance multi-touch makes sense.

The functionality in our demo model wasn't working, unfortunately, but Hsu explained some of the possibilities the Synaptics team had in mind. For example, a user might be able to autocomplete a word by resting his or her finger on the space bar, without having to press it down. Or, in another example, a user might be able to perform gestures without having to remove their fingers from the keys, or disable the touchpad while typing – made possible, in part, because the touchpad and keyboard share the same controller.

ThinTouch is a smart move on Synaptics part to diversify its mobile offerings beyond its traditional touchpad and touch controller business, and combined with the ability to detect capacitive touch, the company might just be the first to do something interesting with the stagnant keyboard market in a long time. And we won't have to wait long either to see if the investment pays off; mass production of ThinTouch should begin in the second half of 2013, and it won't be long after when keyboards reach users' hands.