Imagine if your phone knew your mood by the way you gripped it, the gym floor acted as your personal trainer and your desk came alive by a single touch. These scenarios aren't farfetched or far in the future. Tactonic Technologies, a company that has created low-cost sheets of precision pressure sensors, is working to make such interactions a reality.
“In some sense, touch is the most important sense,” said Gerry Seidman, CEO of Tactonic. “It never goes away. We can close our eyes, muffle our ears, but you always feel your clothes on your body.”
Tactonic is currently working with car companies, design firms and mobile device developers to integrate this tech into the surfaces of everyday items. The rectangular sheets, which Seidman refers to as "tiles," measure up to 2-feet square (for use on floors) and can be linked together to create a bigger sensing area.
Tactonic’s sensors can measure the position of a finger within one-hundredth of an inch accuracy, and can sense 4,096 levels of pressure. However, the tiles use far fewer individual sensors than a typical touchpad. The advantage for Tactonic's technology is that each sensor isn’t taking readings independently.
Instead, the sensors in each rectangle all cooperate to bear the weight of the touch surface layer. Working together, they are able to register a pressure "image" that conveys as much information about position as a surface with far more sensors that work only individually. [See also: New Tech Makes the World Your Touch Screen ]
The sparse sensors and attendant lower power requirements allow the tiles to break the size limitation that has plagued touch-sensitive surfaces in the past. Until now, touch-pressure imaging has been mostly confined to small interfaces and use by research facilities.
Some of the application surfaces, like desktops (for augmented reality workspaces) or seat cushions (to monitor and help improve posture), are obvious choices. Yet, it may be the unexpected areas, like the back of a phone or underside of a steering wheel, which show the full potential of touch interaction.
In trials, when Seidman asked people to take a picture on a phone with touch enabled on the back, they automatically held it like a traditional camera, and even invented a "button area" where they would tap with their finger. “With touch screens today, you have to adjust the focus on the screen, and then take the picture. That’s very unnatural,” Seidman said.
For cars, instead of reaching out awkwardly while driving to turn on the radio or air conditioner, you can have a touchpad right where your fingers already are — curled around the steering wheel. Areas on this touchpad can be programmed to act as a joystick, switch or button and serve any specific purpose. This gives you much more functionality than moving your hands to a few set buttons on the wheel in today’s cars.
The way you exert pressure on an object can tell more about you than you may think, including intent, balance and physical well-being. “It turns out that one telegraphs into their footsteps a lot of information about their health,” Seidman explained.
Tiles on the floor can identify you by the distinctive way you distribute your body weight and track you throughout an area. Store clerks could know from your posture and leaning (determined from the pressure map of your feet) whether you’re interested in buying something. Nurses could monitor your condition through each step you take. Factory foremen could make sure their workers are walking efficiently and not straining themselves.
Tactonic is planning to start shipping their floor tiles in June. Seidman said that details about some of the specific product integrations should be announced later this year.
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