Batman-inspired software can give any phone pressure-sensing abilities

Squeeze to navigate(Credit: University of Michigan)

One of the features announced when the the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus were released that got the tech world buzzing was 3D Touch, the ability for the phone's screen to recognize how much force you're applying to it and respond accordingly with different navigation options. Now, inspired by a scene from a 2008 Batman movie, engineers from the University of Michigan (UM) have developed software that could bring touch sensitivity to all phones – and not just through their screens.

The latest Apple flagship phones achieve their touch magic through capacitive sensors embedded beneath the glass. The concept from UM creates pressure sensitivity in a completely different way – through software that uses any phone's speaker and microphone.

It works by playing a tone out of the phone's speaker at a frequency above 18 kHz. While humans aren't able to hear sounds in this range (we can't speak for your dog), the phone's microphone can pick up the vibrations caused by the tone. Then, when someone touches the phone in a certain way, the tone is naturally altered. The engineers say that the software can measure the changes to the tone and convert them into actions – squeezing your phone to dial an emergency number, for example.

Of course, this project might be of more interest for its creativity than any practical application.

Questions definitely arise over just how sensitive the system could really be and how it would distinguish deliberate touch from changes in the tone that might come from pressure in your pocket. Also, a phone that plays a tone through its speaker constantly just might drain your battery a little faster than usual. Plus, now that Apple has broken through the touch-sensitive barrier, you have to imagine that Android models aren't far behind, so there will likely come a day in the not too distant future when all phones come with pressure-sensing abilities, making a software-based workaround quickly irrelevant

Still, the idea of deriving hand pressure input on a phone using nothing but a mic and speaker is certainly a fun one.

And, speaking of fun, software co-inventor Yu-Chih Tung says he was inspired in part to create the system based on the sequence in the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, when the Big Bad Bat turns all smartphones in Gotham into a sonar system used 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," Tung says.

Tung and doctoral student Kang Shin, who worked together on the software, are no strangers to developing phone software. They've previously designed an app that warns people of obstructions in their paths; one that monitors how tones are reflected back to phones to execute commands, like entering silent mode when placed on a nightstand; and one that could extend battery life by as much as 54 percent by reducing power the power consumed by a phone's time spent in what's known as "idle listening." We suppose that makes them something of a dynamic duo.

Tung and Kang will be presenting their software, which they call ForcePhone, in Singapore on June 27-29 at MobiSys 2016, the Association for Computing Machinery's international mobile systems and applications conference.

Until then, you can check out the UM video below for a look at the software in action.

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