Floating Touch Needs to Be a Big Deal

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The Galaxy S IV is nearly upon us, and in under three days we’ll finally learn just what Samsung’s managed to cook up for its 2013 Android heavyweight. As you’re no doubt aware, dozens upon dozens of rumors have attempted to divine the GS4’s feature set over the past – well, pretty much since the GS3 first arrived. One of those that has managed to come up a few times recently is the idea that the GS4 could support floating touch interactions: using a touchscreen that’s sensitive enough to detect the presence of a finger as it hovers above the screen, before making actual contact. Of all the rumored Galaxy S IV features, this could easily be the most exciting, and if done well, would be the kind of thing I’d love to see go mainstream.

This talk of “floating touch” may have a ring of familiarity to it; there’s a reason for that, as the GS4 wouldn’t be the first kid on the block to pull off such a trick. Sony’s already managed to commercialize the tech, like we saw this time last year in the Xperia Sola (right). Despite the potential, Sony didn’t manage to turn the Sola into a smartphone the world wanted to pay attention to. Now I’m looking to Samsung to hopefully set things right, and get this feature the attention it deserves.

What’s so great about floating touch? Despite this being a hardware feature at heart, its usefulness stems almost entirely from software. Luckily, Android already has support for hover events, and Samsung has a ton of experience working with the S Pen, so I’m incredibly optimistic for what the company might be able to pull off, should this actually make an appearance on the Galaxy S IV.

The first place there’s the potential for improvement is by enhancing input accuracy. Even on a five-inch screen, typing can still be difficult with a portrait-orientation on-screen keyboard, especially for those of us with broader fingers. Software has gone a long way towards improving the Android typing experience, with predictive algorithms usually able to make out what even the most clumsy typist is entering, but those benefits fall apart with unrecognized foreign languages or inputting non-word data like elaborate passwords.

Enter the wrong letters a few times, and this quickly starts getting annoying. The problem with current systems is that we can’t see what we’re pressing until we’ve actually pressed it; floating touch, on the other hand, offers the possibility for software to highlight the key we’re about to hit, giving us a quick visual cue if our taps are slightly off from where we intend them to be.

That’s not all I want to transformed by floating touch. I HATE press-and-hold. Hate, hate hate. It’s an inelegant kluge of a system imagined as a compromise to work where position is married to input, as in traditional touchscreen displays. Floating touch frees us from those constraints, allowing our phones to sense changes in position without necessarily triggering an input. While that doesn’t open up all the same doors for new ways to interact with menus like the extra button on the S Pen does, it does create some new possibilities.

For instance, we could have traditional press-and-hold actions triggered by hovering, then tapping, or just simply a long enough stationary hover alone. What’s the benefit there? Well, for one thing you’re not obscuring the screen so much, giving you greater control over just what you’re pressing, and you remove some of the ambiguity generated by too-short press-and-holds inadvertently being interpreted as tap events.

Samsung has already proven itself capable of innovative software, pushing the limits of what we expect from Android; I think its Multi Window View in last year’s software is a fantastic example of what the company can do when it takes the time to embrace something new. If floating touch is really on the agenda for the Galaxy S IV, I’m incredibly optimistic that we could see Samsung place the same kind of focus on touch interactions, working out a system of hover events and taps that makes Android much more pleasant to use.

Maybe this is all rumors, though; maybe Samsung isn’t interested in this tech for the GS4 at all. Well, then I hope someone eventually steps up to finish what Sony started, because there’s just too much potential here to waste.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!