Sharp Debuts Laptop With Optical-sensor LCD Pad

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Sharp will soon put on sale in Japan a first-of-its-kind laptop that replaces the traditional trackpad with an LCD panel with an embedded optical sensor.

The 4-inch LCD panel packs optical sensors between the screen's pixels so it can both display an image and sense fingers or pens placed on its surface. The use of optical sensors instead of a touchscreen overlay on the small screen means it retains its brightness -- and multiple fingers can be sensed simultaneously. Most touchscreens can manage just one or two fingers at once but the small screen in the new laptop can sense up to four.

In its most basic mode the small screen acts as a conventional mouse trackpad, but hit an on-screen button and the small screen displays a menu with shortcuts to features like Web bookmarks, dictionaries, e-books, photos and games.

Tap the bookmarks icon, for example and a list of your favorite Web bookmarks comes up. Choose one and the browser launches in the main window with that chosen Web site. That's a neat enough feature but the technology really starts to come into its own with more complex pen input.

It's possible to draw a Japanese kanji character or write a word on the small screen and then look it up in the dictionaries -- something that previously involved drawing on the main screen using a mouse, an unnatural way to write. The machine also accepts basic English, Korean and Chinese characters and words.

In picture mode it's possible to annotate or doodle on a picture before saving it -- you could, for example, circle your house on a map before emailing it to friends.

There are a few other small applications. An e-book function makes use of the sensor pad to turn pages, which are displayed on the main screen, and a piano application offers a truncated keyboard for simple melodies. In a bowling game users grab the ball and bowl on the sensor pad then look up to see the ball appear on the main screen and, hopefully, knock down the pins.

The applications in the sensor panel are running on Linux and data is communicated back and forth to the main PC, which runs Windows.

The laptop's sensor pad is a realization of technology first shown in prototype form by Sharp at Japan's Ceatec show in late 2007. There it showed a 3.5-inch screen that could recognize fingers and act as a basic namecard scanner. The LCD pad in the new laptop is able to recognize multiple fingers but the laptop doesn't include a namecard scanner function.

Initially the machine will be on sale in Japan, where it will hit shelves in late May at a price around ¥80,000 (US$808). Sharp said it's considering selling the model outside Japan and will likely first look at countries that have complex writing systems and could benefit from such an input device in a laptop.

The computer itself has a 10.1-inch main LCD and runs Windows Vista Home Basic on an Intel N270 Atom processor. It has 1GB of main memory and a 160GB hard disk drive. Other features include a Web cam, wireless LAN and Bluetooth.

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