Thanks to our friends in China, who seem to have cracked open a shipment of Samsung’s Galaxy S4s before everyone else, we can now reveal two of the S4′s key new features: Floating touch and SmartPause.
SmartPause is an extension of SmartStay — a face-tracking feature that debuted with the Galaxy S3. Where SmartStay turns the screen off when you look away, SmartPause pauses video playback when you look away. What isn’t clear, though, is whether SmartPause is simply an extension of SmartStay (which uses dumb face tracking) or a new feature that utilizes eye tracking. We know from an internal Samsung leak that the S4 is meant to include eye tracking, and Samsung has registered the trademarks for Eye Scroll and Eye Pause, but so far none of the leaked photos or videos show a definitive case of eye tracking. We won’t know for sure until later today, but it’s starting to look like the S4 won’t have eye tracking; probably just an enhanced version of face tracking.
The S4′s other new feature, floating touch, was actually invented by Sony and made its debut in the 2012 Xperia Sola. Floating touch is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of interacting with the screen via touch, the screen detects your finger at a distance of up to 20mm (in the Sola’s case, anyway; the S4 might have a different range). As you can see in the video, floating touch lets you interact with web pages, image galleries, and contact cards, just by pointing a finger. As for why you’d want to point at the screen instead of simply touching it, who knows. (See: Microsoft Research shows off force feedback 3D touchscreen.)
The tech behind floating touch is actually quite simple. As you may know, most smartphones and tablets use what’s known as capacitive touch — an invisible X-Y grid of electrodes in front of the screen. When you touch the screen, your finger changes the voltage at an X-Y intersection, triggering what’s known as a touch event (which is then handled by the OS). Basically, if you make the electrodes sensitive enough — if you run enough power through them — you can increase the range at which your finger is detected. There are some complications when trying to support both multitouch (mutual capacitance) and floating touch (self capacitance) on the same display, but nothing that Sony (and now Samsung) can’t overcome with software.
We now have a fairly complete idea of what to expect at the Galaxy S4 launch event tonight: A smartphone that’s essentially the same as the Galaxy S3, but a little bit larger (4.99-inch vs. 4.8-inch display) and quite a lot faster (four Cortex-A15 cores and four Cortex-A7 cores vs. four Cortex-A9 cores). The S4 will receive a few software tweaks, but I suspect that SmartPause and floating touch are the standout features.
For more Galaxy S4 hardware and software details, read on!