Be forewarned, this post might be a little breathless, but this has to be one of the coolest technologies coming out of Finland right now. The other week I got the chance to go to Senseg's Espoo, Finland offices and get my hands on their prototype tablet. Senseg creates "feel-screens" or touchscreens that offer the sensation of textures when your finger is on the screen.
Their prototype device I used was an old Toshiba tablet that was running Android. Jukka Linjama, Senseg's chief technologist and the head of their human-centric development, was quick to point out that the choice of operating system was just that it was easy to hack, although looking at ArcticStartup's job board, you'll see that they are hiring Android, Windows 8, and Linux hackers, among other positions.
To be honest, my first few seconds with the tablet were underwhelming as I didn't really feel much of anything at all. But you quickly learn how to interact with the screen. I'm used to fat-fingering and mashing buttons on my iPhone, but with Senseg you need to be gentle to get the most precise feedback. I found the way to get the best response was to use more of the side of my finger, and use light taps or movements across the screen.
The textures you can feel are sharp and defined, but it's not really such an accurate replicator where you could feel different textures of fabric when clothes shopping online. To be fair, you are still touching a piece of glass, after all. But one texture demo had me moving my finger across smooth sand, fuzzy grass, and sharp pricks of asphalt. With the visual and touch cues, it was quite immersive.
The possibilities available for tablet gaming are quite clear. One demo game had me searching for things buried underground based on the sense of touch. But for normal browsing and smartphone navigation the solution is also a nice, subtle addition that ads a lot of value to the user. Highlighting and selecting blocks of text doesn't work to well on today's smartphones, but with Senseg's device, you could feel the tick of each character as you highlighted text without a magnifying glass. Switches and buttons had a nice "click" to them, and lots of little things like that added up to a really impressive user experience.
As we go through the demos, Linjama tells me that Senseg is more than an engineering company; they're building a total system solution for their technology. This includes the electronics, the software, the mechanics, and the system integration of how they all work together. The company has already put together an initial supply chain in Asia, and right now one of their main focuses is on the user experience, and also making the technology available to developers through robust APIs and SDKs.
"Everything with our technology is ready to go," Says David Rice, Senseg's Vice President of Marketing. "It still needs to be integrated into these designs and go through probably more than one round of pre-production prototyping with an OEM just to be sure the entire design is working together effectively, but thats a typical go-to-market process."
Linjama attributes their engineering success to "failing fast." They've been gradually getting their technology down to handheld size after a number of prototype devices with large screens and separate electronics boxes. The technology is small enough to fit within a tablet device these days, which is a success in itself considering their first prototype was about the size of a microwave oven. One of the engineering team's big challenges is to continue to get the driver down to a smartphone friendly size, which is already packed with electronics.
Senseg's "Tixels" are actually a very thin and clear structure on touchscreen's glass, which can be put in place by a number of coating processes. They're able to stimulate sensation of touch using Coloumb’s force, the principle of attraction between electrical charges. The system works by passing an ultra-low electrical current into the insulated electrode, Senseg’s Tixel, where the charge driver can create a small attractive force to finger skin. By modulating this attractive force a variety of sensations can be generated. The solution draws very little power, having a somewhat negligible effect on battery life.
Senseg's haptics solution offers public service devices, such as ATM's, to go totally to just a screen solution. U.S. legislation requires accessibility for the blind, making it impossible to implement solutions that are totally touchscreen based. But Senseg gives clues to allow you to navigate and know what you are pressing before you press a button. They had a demo of a keypad concept, where if you navigated around while keeping your finger on the surface you could feel the walls of the keypad, and a strong buzz where the '5' button was located.Car manufacturers are also very interested in the potential offered by Senseg, as their solution will allow them to implement touchscreens for thermostats, music, and other controls, but still allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road. It's an interesting application, but Rice tells me that car manufacturers time to market with new technologies can take a couple years. "This is why we're focusing on the tablet marketplace first," says Rice.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Senseg's tixels is that the solution isn't limited to flat pieces of glass -- Senseg's coating can be applied to nearly any surface, rough or smooth. Linjama tells me initially they were seeing the whole world full of opportunities for haptic solutions, like car steering wheels, light switches, and pretty much any other surface you touch. But they quickly realized they must focus on tablets, as the device is the clearest initial use-case.
When will this technology reach consumers' hands? Senseg didn't offer any specifics, but Rice tells us, "We're really thrilled that we have a number of OEMs that are taking these next steps of developing prototypes on their own platforms, and we're hopeful that it won't reach the market before too long."
Perhaps the most disappointing experience I've had with my iPhone came just after leaving the Senseg offices. The phone's screen felt like what it is... a dumb piece of glass. This is Senseg's huge value proposition for any tablet manufacturer. Who will go back to the way things were once they get their fingers on a Senseg device?