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MultiTouch: The Next Generation of Gaming

July 26, 2011
The new generation of capacitive touch-screen enabled smartphones and tablets require multi-touch support. So what capabilities are important for multi-touch gaming?

Atmel has a range of touch solutions

Over the last few years, a new generation of capacitive touch-screen enabled smartphones and tablet computers have emerged to dominate their industries. Along with a robust market for third-party applications and elegant hardware design, the sheer ease-of-use of the interface has made these devices an exploding, and profitable, product category despite the recent economic downturn.

The user interface that makes these products “must-have” items relies not just on touch, but on multitouch. This allows the consumer to use two fingers at a time to expand or shrink an image or even allow multiple users to use several fingers at once on the same screen. The new capabilities and “feel” that multitouch brought to smartphones and tablets is poised to bring the same competitive advantage to the gaming world. Just as multitouch unleashed the creativity of developers worldwide in the smartphone and tablet space, multitouch will do the same for gaming developers as soon as the hardware supports multitouch’s rich capability set.

To identify how best to implement multi-touch capabilities in gaming devices, one must first understand the unique attributes of today’s multitouch screen technology.

Brighter, Faster, Smarter

Compared to earlier resistive touch-screen systems, today’s capacitive multitouch technology requires fewer layers between the display and the device casing. This results in a clearer, sharper image with more vibrant colors than earlier technology, which is key to the emotional impact and excitement of a game. And since capacitive sensors can detect a finger through solid glass rather than soft plastic, device makers can give their products the smooth, sleek finish that is popular with consumers.

They also provide much faster response than earlier touch-sensitive sensors, allowing for more rapid and accurate play. All this helps make the game more exciting and realistic, especially for fast-paced action such as shooting an opponent, playing a musical instrument or navigating an imaginary aircraft between mountain peaks.

Multitouch sensors can be made part of the screen itself, or part of a separate touch surface that keeps the user’s fingers away from the screen for easier viewing. Making the touch-sensitive pad part of the device itself (rather than requiring separate buttons or switches) allows manufacturers to make their hardware smaller and more elegant, a key design consideration that the past few years has proven to drive user adoption and market share. Eliminating the need for separate input devices can also reduce the cost of gaming units.

Today’s capacitive multitouch sensors can also detect how hard the user presses on the screen by detecting the larger surface area being touched as the user presses harder. This ability to detect differences in pressures lets designers create new interfaces and games with new levels of sophistication and control.

Finally, modern controllers can also detect the difference between an intentional and unintentional touch to the screen. This is increasingly important for handheld gaming controllers where, because the touchscreen occupies a large area, it is more likely the user will unintentionally brush the screen while holding the device or resting their palms on it. Sensors that automatically eliminate these unintended inputs let the gamer concentrate on their game, adding to the immersive, realistic experience.

The Cool Factor

For a sense of how multitouch can drive the user experience on gaming devices, look no further than the thousands of games that take advantage of the multitouch interface on smartphones and tablets. There, gamers can use their fingers to guide a tank on a battlefield, aim its cannon and fire. They can, with the tip of a finger, position aircraft for landing at an airport without crashing into each other.

In each situation, the user has a more immediate, almost visceral sense of involvement with the action, with the ability to (as in real life) use their fingers to place objects in very specific locations in a fast-moving, action-packed environment. This lends itself to, for example, games such as hockey which require very fast reaction times, or drumming games where the system must respond very quickly to determine if the user is matching the beat. Developers have created games where, for example, the user controls a skateboard by moving both ends of it with their fingers, translating the sensation of flipping or pushing the board from the feet to the hands. In others, dragging one’s fingers across the screen change the direction in which the player is looking, again giving the user the feeling they are immersed in a fantasy world. Adding an accelerometer could ratchet up the involvement even further, allowing the user to control the game by simultaneously moving or even hitting the console while also touching its screen.

Multitouch can be used to not only position objects, but to change their function, learn more about them or initiate an action with them. While on a conventional gaming console a user might have to hit a separate button to, for example, learn about the properties of a magic chalice, in a multitouch environment they might only have to hit it twice with their fingertip. This introduces less of an interruption into the flow of the game, does not require the user to take their eyes from the screen, and gives the user a greater feel of being “in” the action rather than observing it.

Multitouch displays are also useful for educational games in which the user needs to examine the changing relationship between two objects, such as the lines that make up an angle, and how the size of the resulting angle changes with the orientation of the lines.

What To Look For

Understanding how and where multitouch sensors raise the gaming experience to a new level, hardware engineers should look for multi-touch controllers that can deliver this higher level of experience. Capabilities to look for include:

  • The ability to process simultaneous multiple touches, and to avoid false touches
  • High scan rates that allow devices to follow virtually any motion, supporting demanding applications such as very fast-paced games with multiple input options or complex screens
  • High noise suppression, ensuring that the location of the finger or thumb is not distorted either by other components within the device (such as the LCD screen or charger) or external electrical devices
  • Support for a high density sensor for greater positional accuracy
  • Power-saving features such as the ability for the controller to "sleep" after scans to extend battery life

Next Steps

Recent advances in the smartphone and tablet markets show the competitive advantage of leadership, when innovative designers and engineers anticipate, rather than react to, consumers’ needs. A key to the elegance, user-friendliness and “buzz” that have ignited the smartphone and tablet market in recent years have come from their multitouch interfaces.

Gaming customers and developers are waiting for hardware OEMs to make the same use of multitouch technology to unleash a new wave of superb gaming experiences. Hardware vendors who make the earliest, and best, use of multitouch technology have the opportunity to not only “wow” gamers with the coolest apps, but to gain lasting competitive advantage.

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