More feature stories by year:
Return to: 2011 Feature Stories
Apr. 19, 2011: Electronic Design
A new category of mobile devices is emerging—computerized slates for school children. This might appear paradoxical, since classrooms seem to be the last islands on earth where cell phones are prohibited.
In developed countries, students account for a quarter of the population. But in emerging countries, with governments investing heavily in developing their IT and education infrastructures, the addressable market is already close to a billion users. Also, given that education is now on the cusp of the cloud revolution, it would not be surprising if the education market becomes the next El Dorado for makers of connected devices of any sort.
These computerized slates could very well be a learning and discovery tool from the very start, rather than yet another discipline to learn—a concept that has much more in common with paper notepads and plastic slates than it has with traditional classroom PCs. Moreover, a single interface could respond to the educational needs of users throughout their school careers—from elementary school to university—adapting input mechanisms, graphical elements, interaction flow, and applications as the user's ability grows.
An interface evolving alongside its user presents three challenges for mobile applications and their respective devices: the adaptation to the task, to the context (home or work, static or mobile), and to users, since their skills develop over time.
Delivering such applications raises several technology challenges, both on the hardware and software ends of the supply chain. On the touch-panel side, the key challenge is to deliver a fully transparent and trustworthy capture of whatever the user may be doing on the screen (taking notes, coloring maps, drawing geometry figures, etc.) without any noticeable performance tradeoffs.
Among the hardware challenges are uncompromised handwriting and finger tracking, smart touch-event discrimination, such as finger, object, palm, and touch clusters, a greater than 250-Hz responsiveness, and touch performance characterization. Software challenges include real-time handwriting rendering and cross-platform deployment.
The broad solution is multi-touch technology, which is a perfect form factor for mobile and school computing because it's transportable and offers enough surface area for proper content manipulation and viewing. But the specific form factor requires the right type of multi-touch technology—a technology that makes touchscreens easier and less costly to build than those that use traditional capacitive multi-touch and, most importantly, that respond best to the needs of the user.
"A user-friendly, touch-enabled smaller screen that doubles as a connected, multimedia e-textbook would be welcomed by students, parents, and teachers," says Lynn Marentette, a noted school psychologist who blogs about accessible off-the-desktop natural user interfaces.
"Tech-savvy teachers often incorporate digital storytelling and multimedia activities into their lessons, and 21st century learners need a fast and easy way to input and manipulate their creative content. Although some of the netbooks in line for purchase by the schools offer this capability, they don't provide the mode of touch that students love, a touch that might make learning tangible—and real," Marentette adds.
One technology that provides this "mode of touch that students love" is the force-activated interpolated voltage-sensing matrix (iVSM). It uses a grid of wires, an approach not common in capacitive or even standard resistive multi-touch. As an example, Stantum's iVSM technology employs two superimposed layers of conductive tracks that comprise the matrix.
The two layers are assembled superposed on a glass substrate, with the conductive sides facing each other, separated by an isolator in the shape of dots. When one or multiple touches occur on the touch panel, the top layer bends slightly, creating contact between the two layers right below the touches. The controller chip detects the electrical contacts and determines the exact location of the touches.
This technology enables virtually unlimited touch points, offering a more agreeable experience for the user, at whatever stage of development. The technology works with fingers, fingernails, and styli, and it allows faster responses, with low activation force, precision, consistency, and low jitter. It also provides smart detection for such things as handwriting rendering and palm rejection. And, it consumes less power and lends itself to simple, flexible manufacturing.
Computerized slates with iVSM multi-touch interfaces are suited to follow a child's learning curve, skillset acquisition, and both psychological and physiological development throughout his or her school career. To sum it up, these evolving interfaces for students are best-in-class.
Return to: 2011 Feature Stories