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The Synaptics SmartBar is a touch-sensitive spacebar with pinch-to-zoom

The spacebar, that big, elongated button at the bottom of your keyboard above your thumbs’ natural resting place, could be doing a lot more. In fact, touchpad maker Synaptics says that if you add a touch-sensitive surface, it could handle swipes, gestures, and taps for performing all manner of useful actions without requiring your fingers to leave their primed typing position. Enter the Synaptics SmartBar.

The SmartBar is a spacebar with an embedded digitizer for detecting finger motions. Synaptics bills it as a time-saving shortcut to tasks, and had a few to demonstrate at Computex: you can swipe your thumb right or left to move your computer’s cursor through text and program up to five macros for more advanced operations, like pulling up dictionary definitions or opening the properties menu to examine folders. It even has multitouch for pinching with your thumbs to zoom in on webpages and documents.

synaptics smartbarSynaptics emphasized the SmartBar’s potential for gaming, explaining why the firm announced computer component and accessory maker Thermaltake as its first partner. Thermaltake plans to include the touch-sensitive spacebar in a future Tt eSports gaming keyboard, which, if the macro functions work as well as advertised, could be quite useful in games with complex key combinations that might be reduced to single shortcuts.

Synaptics has just started making the SmartBar available to OEMs, but it envisions the SmartBar in both laptop and desktop form factors.

“Desktop PCs still represent a sizeable portion of the PC market, especially in the commercial segment, but most desktop users have been left behind in terms of next-generation interfaces such as touch,” said Tom Mainelli, VP of Devices & Displays at International Data Corporation, in the press release. “Companies are always looking for ways to help drive employee efficiency, and feature-rich, touch-enabled keyboards represent a straightforward, affordable way to help increase worker productivity.”

The SmartBar might be perceived as a response to Apple’s Force Touch on the new Mac, a new trackpad with haptic feedback that simulates touches for added functionality — a two-tap gesture on an address opens a map, for instance, and “force touching” through video speeds up playback. But Synaptics hasn’t been resting on its laurels — in the years leading up to Force Touch’s debut, it’s introduced a capacitive keyboard concept called ThinTouch, and more recently the fingerprint-scanning SecurePad sensor and Natural ID.

Synaptics didn’t lay out SmartBar’s roadmap, so it could be a while before the first products appear. That’s probably for the best — if the company really wants to convince consumers they need a spacebar that detects touches, it’s going to have to ensure the experience is seamless.