Future Microsoft hardware could use smart fabrics, suggests new patent

Laurent Giret

From the original Surface Touch Cover to the new Alcantara keyboards on recent Surface Pro and Surface Laptop devices, Microsoft has shown a pretty unusual interest in fabric-based keyboards in recent years. If this has been a way for the Redmond giant to differentiate its products from its competitors, it seems that we could soon see the company use fabric in much more interesting ways.

According to a new Microsoft patent titled “Forming Touch Sensor on Fabric” (via Patently Mobile), the company is apparently looking to use sensors to create smart fabrics that could be used on hand held devices, wearables, and more. In the patent description, Microsoft imagines touch sensors formed on fabric to be used on the front and back surfaces of a tablet, as seen in the image below.

Screenshot 2019 02 05 at 15.54.52

Microsoft goes to explain in the patent that the sensors integrated in these soft extorior surfaces could be use to interact with a hand-held device without having to touch its screen:

The tactile interface provided by the first and second touch sensors, may be in addition to a tactile interface provided by a touch-sensitive screen incorporated with the display. In such an example, various touch-based input gestures may be used for user interface interactions, e.g. to perform a selection operation in place of or in addition to a touch screen input. This may allow touch-based user inputs to be made without requiring a user to release a grip of the hand-held computing device to use the touch screen, and may also allow a greater variety of user inputs to be made.

The patent also describes the use of smart fabrics on a head-mounted display, with an image showing Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality headset. In that case, Microsoft explains that a smart fabric could be applied on the headset’s adjustable band, allowing users to use the embedded touch sensors to perform various actions on the headset.

The touch sensor may be used to detect various touch inputs and touch gestures from a wearer touching the outer surface of the adjustable band at the location of the touch sensor. Detected touch signals may be delivered to the controller to perform actions on the head-mounted display device, such as to control a virtual cursor, scroll through settings or displayed imagery, adjust volume of audio output, and/or perform a selection of a displayed element.

Screenshot 2019 02 05 at 15.54.39

The mention of a head-mounted display is quite interesting as Microsoft is expected to unveil its next-gen HoloLens later this month at Mobile World Congress. We’re looking forward to seeing if the new version of the mixed reality headset will make innovative use of touch sensors. The new Surface Headphones, which Microsoft released last Fall in the US and UK come with capacitive touch sensors on the earcups for controlling music playback or answering phone calls, but Microsoft can likely do much better than that.