25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

Get Ready for More Phones With No Buttons

Wired 14 Jan 2020 12:00

First, they came for headphone jacks. Buttons are next.

Last week at CES 2020, two companies showed off prototype smartphone designs with no physical buttons. Imagine it: a phone with no dedicated controls to change the volume or toggle the power. Yet if you tapped certain areas on the edges of the seamless screen, the phone would react as though you'd just pressed a power button or thumbed a volume rocker.

In the next few years, there’s a good chance most smartphones will augment physical buttons with digital ones, or just replace them entirely. The transition has already started. The HTC U12 Plus from 2018 was among the first to only use pressure-sensitive buttons. More recently, Asus’ ROG Phone 2—which has physical buttons—also utilizes touch-sensitive areas as shoulder triggers, which is handy for certain types of videogames. And for four years in a row, Google's Pixel phones also let you summon the Google Assistant with a squeeze.

The phones from HTC and Asus use the same technology from a company called Sentons, based in San Jose, California. Sentons relies on a combination of a piezoelectric sensor and a strain gauge to mimic a physical button. The sensor uses ultrasonic waves to identify where the finger rests on the side of the phone, and the gauge measures force through strain on the surface.

The new Asus ROG Phone 2 uses sensors that act as buttonless shoulder triggers when the phone is held in landscape mode.

Photograph: Asus

Remi Lacombe, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Sentons, admitted the iteration of its tech inside HTC’s phone wasn’t perfect—in my time with the U12 Plus, I was frustrated by the way the digital buttons would always activate at the most inopportune times—but he pointed to the ROG Phone 2 and said the sensors have improved since. He’s right. The invisible shoulder buttons on Asus’ most recent phone are a big step up in responsiveness, with the added benefit that they offer an extra layer of control when gaming. The prototype phones Sentons showed at CES also reacted to my touch with expert accuracy and zero delay.

But why exactly do we need to get rid of physical buttons? They've served us perfectly well over the past decade. Lacombe believes the answer is threefold, but it starts with better industrial design. Designers who have been chasing the ideal of a “seamless unibody” design for phones can finally achieve this goal, as the sides won’t need to be disrupted with physical buttons.

Another reason, he says, is to accommodate up-and-coming technologies such as 5G and so-called waterfall displays—a new type of mobile screen design that bleeds over the edges of the phone. Think of Samsung’s Galaxy phones and their wraparound displays, but with even more usable screen.

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