Sentons, Foxconn Partner On Mainstream Virtual Smartphone Buttons

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Fabless semiconductor and multi-touch sensor company Sentons has now partnered with Foxconn to try and bring smartphones with virtual buttons into the mainstream. The companies hope to accomplish that using Sentons's SDS ButtonBar technology to effectively replace the currently-used physical buttons.

More succinctly, the companies are trying to solve the problems facing modern smartphone design. OEMs have consistently worked toward using smaller components and slimming down the overall build of smartphones. Following on that, mobile design has shifted toward sleeker frames and reduced screen-to-body ratios.

One of the biggest challenges to that, according to Sentons CEO Jess Lee, is figuring out where to "place chunky old-fashioned" physical buttons. One solution to that problem is to eliminate them entirely. The partnership could make that much easier for a wide variety of mobile brands.

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Perks of Sentons SDS ButtonBar-based virtual buttons

The technology Foxconn and Sentons hope to use in pursuit of the underlying goal is the Sentons-built SDS ButtonBar. That's an interface-focused sensor array that can be placed just about anywhere in the design of a smartphone. That includes placement in the interior, such as under the display or within the frame of a phone. The sensor allows touch interactions that simulate button pushes.

Enabling that, SDS ButtonBar is comprised of over 20 'submircon-sized ultrasonically modulated discrete sensors'. Those are spread over a 1.9-inch long bar that's thin and flexible. As a software-defined surface, SDS ButtonBar can also be programmed to reject false touches.

At the heart of the SDS ButtonBar, the technology allows for fairly straightforward uses. Namely, that's pressure-based actions that allow the sensors to work like traditional standard buttons. It's small size and flexibility could also see use in other smart devices, such as smartwatches. So the potential is already there for SDS ButtonBar to simply replace buttons outright. But that's not the only use case possible here.

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Sentons also indicates its sensor array can work with other gestures such as swipes or taps. That opens up quite a few extra use cases and actions that go well beyond what physical buttons can do.

This isn't entirely new but definitely not mainstream

Foxconn is responsible for building a huge variety of devices from Apple handsets to Pixel devices, game consoles, and more. The company has suffered over the past quarter and moving forward through the next due to the outbreak of coronavirus. Its prominence in the mobile market speaks to how important this partnership will be for the industry.

Pressure-based and virtual buttons are not unheard of. In fact, devices built by HTC, Google, Huawei, ASUS, and even some smaller brands such as Vivo have made use of them. The latter company even released a device last year, the Vivo NEX 3 5G, that shipped with fully digital buttons and no physical keys, to speak of. But the button-free technology is not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination.

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Foxconn's involvement with Sentons could easily change that, given the company's position in the market. More importantly, that won't necessarily be limited to flagship handsets. The deal could result in the widespread adoption of virtual buttons and will almost certainly improve innovation in that side of the market. That's if Foxconn's partners take advantage of any offerings that Sentons and Foxconn manage to put together.