Apple introduces 3D Touch – Thanks to Microsoft !

The grandiloquent product launch of Apple today, sounded something like this, “Today we’re presenting to you a revolutionary technology of Multi-Touch which is called 3 D Touch, which will make your smartphones respond to Force Touch, achieving an impeccable Pressure-Sensitive Touch.” Voila, in a mere 5 seconds, Apple gave birth to 4 synonymous words. That’s how laconic as it gets with Apple. However, with due respect to the engineering involved, a 3D touch essentially commensurates to converting your mobile screen into a mouse trackpad.

As an electronics engineer, I was highly intrigued by this development and I dug deep into the world wide web to explore the working. Extrapolating on the hint provided during the Launch presentation, it is based on the sensors which have been embedded on the display that sense the pressure with which the fingers are pressing the screen. Just like a mouse pad!

While grousing and browsing through the unfiltered search results for this technology, I landed upon the gold mine – The Patent issued to apple for this technology. According to the patent issued, this technology is able to detect both force and touch using FTIR and capacitive location. Here is a snippet from the patent application abstract:

Capacitive sensing can determine (A) where the finger actually touches, so the touch device more accurately infers applied force; (B) whether finger touches shadow each other; (C) as a baseline for applied force; or (D) whether attenuated reflection is due to a current optical coupling, or is due to an earlier optical coupling, such as a smudge on the cover glass.

Source: US Patent and Trademark Office

For the lesser enlightened, FTIR stands for Frustrated Total Internal Reflection. On doing more search, I found out that Microsoft has been extensively working on this technology for almost a decade now. A research published by Microsoft defines a FTIR setup as follows:

The most common FTIR set-up has a transparent acrylic pane, with a frame of LEDs around its edges, into which infrared light is injected (see Figure (left)). When the user touches the acrylic, the light escapes and is reflected at the finger’s point of contact due to its higher refractive index; an infrared-sensitive camera can then clearly see these reflections. A basic set of computer-vision algorithms is applied to the camera image to determine the location of the contact point.

According to this research paper, in 2007, Microsoft announced the Surface multi-touch table which uses the embedded multi-touch interactive screen and called it the Microsoft PixelSense experience. Not sardonically speaking, Apple has lived up to the reputation of wrapping around an existing, but dormant, latent or lesser known technology, with a premium user experience and stitching it to a broad based application, before presenting it in a flamboyant manner to the world.

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Inside an Apple iPhone!

Apple-iPhone-5S-board-640x262It is funny to me how Apple first relies on Samsung for fabrication of their self-designed patent proof processors and then sues Samsung for patent violations! The architecture of the System on Chip for Apple devices is a mystery or at best, a compilation of speculations, assumptions and hardware tear off activities.  I was pleasantly surprised to read some insightful teardown blogs on the latest Apple A7 processor and that motivated me to write a blog on how apple provides a brilliant ecosystem for some giant companies to come together in one chip set!

ARM: Starting from the A7 processor {apple processors have the nomenclature of A#}, which is based on 64 Bit ARMv8 Architecture, custom designed at Apple.  These processors are dual core and before you jump to a conclusion, high frequency dual core processors in Apple are way better than the low frequency quad core processors available out there in the market http://www.cnet.com/news/apples-64-bit-a7-chip-not-quad-core-says-chip-expert/

Samsung: The A7 processor is fabricated with Samsung 28nm process technology. This is 4nm improvement over A6 processors, used in iPhone 5. Apple also boasts of a transistor count of 1 billion. Strange relationship, Apple and Samsung. Read more , http://appleinsider.com/articles/13/09/20/samsung-confirmed-to-be-manufacturer-of-apples-new-a7-chip-in-iphone-5s

Broadcom: Apples uses the Broadcom WiFi SoC with an integrated support for 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth and FM receiver. It also relies on Broadcom for touchscreen controller. What is interesting is that Apple has hired former Broadcom principal engineer Paul Chang, who has three Broadcom patents covering integrated circuit manufacturing methods. These are clear indication of the fact that Apple is working on in house Wifi SoC development. http://www.idownloadblog.com/2014/04/09/apple-poaching-broadcom-rf-engineers/

Qualcomm: Apple relies on Qualcomm for Cellular connectivity including LTE/ HSPA+/CDMA2K/ TDSCDMA / EDGE/ GPS transceiver. This chip is the apple’s eye [Pun Inteded ;)] in the cellular world! Apple has been hiring a lot of professionals from Qualcomm over the past years. Here is an interesting post from a publication on LinkedIn

“All together, Apple has assembled at least 30 mid- and senior-level baseband software and hardware engineers from Broadcom and current iPhone baseband vendor Qualcomm over the past three years.”

Sony:  The iSight cameras in Iphone 5S has Sony CMOS image sensors, custom designed for smartphones and tablets. It is interesting to note that the same camera is used in the Samsung Galaxy S4. You might want to read more about these sensors here, http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/News/Press/201208/12-107E/

There is more to it.. Texas Instruments, ST Microelectronics, NXP Semiconductors and so forth. The point to be noted is an excellent balance of relationship amongst these sharks. I have an observation to make here, Tim Cook, present CEO of Apple, in his last position was the Head of Supplier Relationships. This goes on to say how important it is for Apple, to maintain relations.

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Disclaimer: I might be wrong about some technical details, to be blamed is the conservative approach of Apple . Please do correct me if you have more authentic information.

Important References:

http://www.anandtech.com/show/7910/apples-cyclone-microarchitecture-detailed

http://www.chipworks.com/en/technical-competitive-analysis/resources/blog/inside-the-iphone-5s/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_A7