Atmel unveils sensor film that could revolutionize touchscreens

Atmel unveiled new flexible film-based sensors that it said could revolutionize touchscreens.

The new XSense sensors could enable flexible touchscreens, screens with curved surfaces, and much larger touchscreens as well, said Steve Laub, chief executive of the San Jose, Calif.-based chip maker in an interview with VentureBeat.

“This is a completely new type of technology to build the mesh for a touchscreen,” Laub said. “It is very flexible, and for the first time you can have curved screens where the screen wraps around the edge.”It will change the designs of smartphones and tablets.”

Most touchscreens today use capacitive touch technology, which uses a brittle material under a layer to sense where a finger touches a display. The XSense sensors use a new flexible film from a company called Conductive Inkjet Technology. Atmel plans to print metal layers on the film, creating the electrical circuitry for the touchscreen. Atmel will do that work at a new factory in Colorado Springs. Colo.

Touch-enabled products based on the new technology will arrive in the third quarter of 2012. They will include thinner, lighter, edgeless, and curved touchscreens for smartphones and tablets. Eventually, they will also include larger touchscreens.

Laub (pictured) said the company has samples of the technology now and the first products will be three inches to 11 inches in size.

The XSense sensors can be manufactured as a roll-to-roll film, which is easy to apply to display surfaces.

“The combined touchscreen sensor and controller IC industry is over $10 billion dollars currently and is still growing rapidly. There is significant demand in the industry for larger, thinner and lighter touch sensors,” said Jennifer Colegrove, an analyst at NPD DisplaySearch. “ITO-alternative material, such as Atmel’s new touch sensor technology XSense, is penetrating into the touch sensor market to offer designers new thin, lightweight, flexible and durable designs.”

Atmel already makes controllers that make touchscreens more accurate. Laub said that the XSense products will be cost-effective at large sizes, such as flat-panel televisions. Atmel has an exclusive license on the technology.

“You’ll be able to do the big touchscreens like in Minority Report,” he said, referring to a futuristic Tom Cruise film.

Laub said the cost of the new sensors is much lower than current sensor technology. Atmel has 5,000 employees. Fujifilm is one of the competitors in the market.