The US Patent and Trademark office recently published a patent (first spotted by PatentlyApple) Microsoft filed almost two years ago that shows how a pressure-sensitive display might work on a variety of devices.
Microsoft mentions a number of potential form factors the technology could work with (such as tablets, smart watches, and even car-mounted displays), but explicitly focuses on a phone.
The idea behind the technology is not too different from Apple’s 3D Touch, which works in a very similar way on the latest iPhones.
Microsoft’s reference device (which could end up being the long-rumoured “Surface Phone”) makes explicit use of a stylus as the peripheral used to work with the pressure-sensitive panel. This could be a variant of the Surface Pen it already sells, and that works with all of its other computers: Surface Pro, Laptop, Book, and Studio.
In the patent’s description, the stylus – not a finger – is used to press on the screen, where a force sensitive area (which coincides with the touch sensitive area, i.e. the handset’s screen) calculates both the position as well as the force impressed by the pen, and makes the software respond accordingly.
Interestingly, the patent’s main subject device also mentions the presence of a “unibody design” as well as an organic light-emitting diode (OLED) panel that “extends over the edges of the display, wherein the touch sensitive area is configured to the display.”
For one, it’s interesting to see that Microsoft mentions various types of displays, but focuses specifically on OLEDs. OLEDs are used in the highest-end smartphones, such as those in Samsung’s Galaxy S and Galaxy Note lineups, and are rumoured to make their first appearance on the special, tenth anniversary iPhone as well.
OLED displays are also notoriously costly and difficult to manufacture, especially if the panels are curved, which would further indicate how Microsoft’s focus (were this technology to end up in an actual product) is on a relatively small, smartphone-sized device.
All of Microsoft’s Surface products are generally premium, expensive machines that aim to offer customers the best Microsoft has to offer, so it would make sense to include an OLED display in a “Surface Phone.”
Microsoft applied for the patent back in September 2015, the year Apple’s iPhone 6s and 6s Plus – the first ones featuring 3D Touch – were unveiled and launched; and Microsoft’s technology is indeed very similar to Apple’s.
However, Microsoft’s use of a stylus as an input method also makes it potentially different, as the user interface and software apps may react differently if the device recognises a stylus and a finger as two separate input methods. (Apple too has developed its own Pencil stylus; however, the Pencil only works with iPad Pro devices, which do not have support for 3D Touch.)
We know that Microsoft has already worked on a somewhat similar technology, which was set to debut with a “Nokia Lumia McLaren” smartphone. That phone, however, never saw the light of day. It run a version of the ill-fated Windows Phone 8 that featured “exploding” tiles, which would follow the user’s finger and react consequently (Microsoft’s current mobile operating system, Windows 10 Mobile, still uses tiles).
However, the Lumia McLaren’s technology was the exact opposite of the one used by the patent’s reference device. The unreleased Lumia smartphone relied on sensors that measured the proximity of the finger to the screen to make its own 3D Touch work, whereas the new display tech has been designed to work with actual pressure.
In an interview with Business Insider back in June, Microsoft’s general manager of devices Ryan Gavin wouldn’t confirm whether the Redmond company was effectively working on a phone or not (the company bought the surfacephone.com domain back in 2016).
Microsoft largely retrenched from the phone business, focusing its mobile efforts on improving Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS platforms through its software services, such as Office suite, Skype, and the Cortana digital assistant.
It’s in fact important to bear in mind that this is just a patent filed for the pressure-sensitive display, which does not confirm that Microsoft is working on a “Surface Phone,” or a device in general that features the technology.
However, Gavin did mention that an “ultra mobile” device is not something the company would necessarily rule out, but that – if and when that comes – it would “not resemble what we know and think of as a phone today.”