When Sony's latest e-readers were introduced recently, a lot of people wondered whether the touch-screen interface would be improved after previous attempts met with complaints of screen glare, contrast issues, and only so-so responsiveness. We expected it would be better, but were surprised by how well the touch-screen technology worked. So, what's the secret sauce?
Well, what's interesting is that Sony didn't use its own technology but actually licensed it from another company called Neonode. We're not saying that Sony never does this, but the company does take a certain pride in developing products with its own proprietary technology.
The latest Sony Readers, including the Pocket Edition PRS-350 ($180), Touch Edition PRS-650 ($230), and Daily Edition PRS-950 ($300), use a customized version of Neonode's optical touch-screen technology.
Neonode says its patented touch-screen technology, zForce, "supports high resolution pen writing in combination with market leading finger navigation including gestures, multitouch, sweeps and much more. zForce uses no overlay (like resistive and capacitive touch screens) on top of the e-ink display thus creating a 100 percent clear window free from reflexes and parallax effects and produces a true paper like experience."
The company also adds that its zForce technology is energy efficient and reduces the power consumption for so-called "low-power consumption" mobile electronics devices.
Neonode is a Swedish company that's been around for a while and even made some mobile phones, including the Neonode 2 in 2007. Back in 2008, the company filed for bankruptcy and many thought it had died but it's now become solely focused on licensing out its infrared-based touch-screen technology.
If you look closely at the bezel on the new Sony Readers, you'll notice there's a slight gap around the edge of the bezel (that surrounds the screen). As Neonode says on its Web site, "zForce uses a small frame around the display with LEDs and photoreceptors on the opposites sides hidden behind a infrared-transparent bezel. A controller sequentially pulses the LEDs to create a grid of infrared light beams across the display. A touch obstructs one or more of the beams which identifies the X and Y coordinates which also give area information. Interpolation combined with analogue signal processing give multiple touch readings and high speed gesture feedback."
What's cool is that you don't actually have to touch the screen to get a response. It's hard to do, but if you put your finger just a hair above the screen you'll still get a response. All in all, we've been impressed with the new Sony Readers, though we're disappointed that the two entry-level models don't feature any sort of wireless connectivity and are more expensive than the Kindle or Nook e-ink readers. Also, while the high-end PRS-950 does offer both 3G and Wi-Fi, it costs $300--or $50 more than the Nook Color.
We're not sure why Sony didn't make a bigger deal out of this technology (probably because it wasn't developed by Sony), but we're just pointing it out because odds are we're going to start seeing it in other e-readers moving forward and mobile electronics manufacturers have a lot of interest in touch-screen technology.
Back in February, Amazon purchased a small New York-based start-up called TouchCo. As reported by The York Times, "Touchco uses a technology called interpolating force-sensitive resistance, which it puts into displays that can be completely transparent and could cost as little as $10 a square foot.
The capacitive touch screens used in the iPad and iPhone are considerably more expensive. Unlike those screens, the Touchco screens can also detect an unlimited number of simultaneous touch points." The six TouchCo employees were folded into the Kindle hardware division, Lab126, which is located in Cupertino, Calif. So far, Amazon has yet to produce its own touch-screen e-reader.