Your Touchscreen’s Cosmic Connection

Jun 13, 2016

By Patrick Worfolk


1.3 billion years ago two black holes collapsed and merged, emitting a burst of energy orders of magnitude greater than anything our sun could ever generate. Today, that energy continues to propagate in the form of gravity waves, literally stretching and squeezing the very fabric of space. These displacements are incredibly small, making them impossible to observe. That is until September 14, 2015, when twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors measured them.

Just how small is small?

Imagine a ruler that is 100 million miles long. A gravity wave passing through that ruler would make it longer (or shorter) by about the size of an atom. When you’re trying to measure distances that tiny, compensating for all the extraneous movement (earth tremors, footsteps, vibrations, etc.) is a monumental challenge. Imagine trying to listen for a mosquito in a game-day football stadium. How do you filter out all the noise?

The LIGO scientists and engineers solved the problem through a combination of optical interferometry, mechanical design and signal processing. A series of pendulums suspend the LIGO mirrors and optics, insulating them from vibrations and external forces. Active isolation systems filter out effects such as ground movements and tides. The result is a “perfectly” quiet environment, and advanced signal processing running on supercomputers filters out the signal from the remaining noise.

LIGO is a world-wide collaboration to which over 900 of the world’s most talented scientists and engineers have contributed. We’re fortunate to currently employ four of those scientists at Synaptics, applying the same ingenuity that discovered these black holes to advance the humble touchscreen. Touchscreens on smartphones and tablets work by detecting the tiny amount of capacitance in your finger. At Synaptics we carefully select materials that offer the best capacitive sensing performance, design systems to compensate for obstacles such as display noise, and develop advanced signal processing algorithms that can distinguish between the swipe of a finger and a brush of your palm.

The result? Touchscreens that perform predictably and respond intuitively, offering you an effortless user experience.

So the next time you pick up your phone, think about how the touchscreen you use to send a text message shares a common bond with the technology that brings us closer to an understanding of our universe.