A new patent recently published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office suggests Apple is exploring new touch screen technology. This is not unusual for the Cupertino-based company, as evidenced by previous patents describing both pressure-sensitive and curved touchscreen technology.
The patent describes a screen's capability to determine pressure sensitivity using infrared and capacitive touch sensors, giving the device the ability to distinguish a soft touch from a light touch. If we look through our crystal ball here, the implementation of such a patent would mean Apple devices would be able to implement gestures that vary depending on force. Heavy-handed and fleet-of-touch users might need to change their behavior down the road.
The method used to determine where a user touches a screen, as noted by MacRumors, is called Frustrated Total Internal Reflection (FTIR); light is bounced off the touch screen in order to detect multitouch, and when combined with capacitive capabilities, can also determine force at the same time. Microsoft is the best example of FTIR, using the technology in its Perceptive Pixel products—those, however, are intended more for the corporate crowd. Additionally, Microsoft offers PixelSense technology, which is described in this video here.
It's unclear how, if at all, Apple will implement this patent into future technology. Apple is clearly interested in boosting its touchscreen capabilities, though how the company's research will change how we use our devices remains unclear. Compared to simply tapping on icons and using multitouch, how will something like pressure-sensitivity alter the experience? We'll have to wait and see if future implementation comes down the line.