"The easy-to-use technologies developed by Apple engender an almost religious fervour in some of the company's followers. Now it would appear that Apple's touchscreen technology is about to get smarter still, becoming able to detect a finger that is simply near but not touching a point on the screen.
That will add a new dimension to touchscreen gadgets. For example, letting your finger do the same job as hovering your mouse over an item on a computer to reveal extra info. Right now, there's no way to do that. But imagine the uses it could have on a phone.
The touchscreen button that connects you to the web could tell you how busy your 3G connection is as your finger approaches. Giving you forewarning of likely download speed.
Apple's trick is spelt out in this patent application (pdf). The idea is to embed a thicket of infrared LEDs and light-sensors into the touchscreen circuitry. The invisible infrared light from the LEDs bounces off your fingertip (or any other "body parts" you care to place in the way, the patent fascinatingly suggests) and is read by the sensor.
However, this is an area of frenetic research. For instance, Microsoft's ThinSight touchscreen uses similarly buried IR sensors to give it similar abilities. You can see it in action below.
In fact, patent examiners might see ThinSight as too similar a technology and nix Apple's application. Microsoft filed its patent on 29 May 2008, while Apple's was filed on 4 December. Yet theirs was what's called a continuation - a new addition that replaces an earlier document. That earlier patent was filed on 3 January 2007." (Continued via Textually.org, New Scientist) [Usability Resources]