Taking Back The Interface

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[by Stephanie Chedíd]

You’ve all probably heard the term “user interface” before, but just in case you haven’t…:

  1. User Interface: (noun) the means by which the user and a computer system interact, in particular the use of input devices and software.

Most people  will read this definition and have no issue with it.  But here at Sensel, we aren’t completely satisfied.  In “User Interface”—  the word we have issue with is “user”.  The tech world has grown accustomed to viewing the humans that interact with computers simply as users rather than actual humans, with their own depth of knowledge, creativity, and physical language, and to the detriment of anyone who uses computers, user interfaces have evolved accordingly.  Tech developers have forgotten to take into consideration the humans behind the “user”, the details of their interaction, the imperfections and precision and expression they’re capable of communicating with when using hands.

At Sensel, we like to think we’re taking back the interface— evolving it from a “user interface” to a “human interface” by enabling people to communicate with technology that truly captures their expressions— not just the shapes but the lines and pressure and force that their hands use to express, whether they’re playing video games or pumping up a crowd with some new beats.

Let’s take a brief moment to rewind:

Once upon a time, the word “computers” referred to actual people.  That’s right, people.  Before World War II, (sometime after the glory days of the abacus and before the magic of Texas Instruments) many citizens were hired, essentially, as human calculators— these people were called “computers”.  Later on, a different breed of “computers”, which were mechanical calcluators (ENIAC is one such example), were borne out of military research during WWII.  IBM later saw an opportunity and started to commercialize these kinds of calculating computers.

I know what you’re thinking: Cool factoids— what’s your point?  Computers started with humans, as humans, even.  After a long time away, we think it’s time to incorporate the “human” back into our interactions with computers.

Remember when Sega Genesis came out? No? Nintendo, Xbox? Now I feel old… The point is, I bet you can recall playing with each (ok, at least one) of these consoles and how you used to press extra hard on the controller buttons when you wanted to go faster, or stop sooner, or jump higher.  Why did you do that?  You knew it wouldn’t make a difference.  The button was a button, and it was going to perform the same action, with the same (lack of) precision, at the same (static) intensity, no matter how hard you pressed.  As humans we use our hands to communicate, just like we use our words and our facial expressions— so this behavior, though lacking in logic, was quite natural.

Isn’t it a shame, though, that you can recall the same frustration with the limited ability to communicate through these input devices from the 80s with Sega to thirty years later with Xbox?  It’s weird how the games have evolved, but the ways in which we interact with them have not.  Or maybe you’ve never questioned it until now.  Well, here at Sensel we’ve been questioning this for years (or rather, since the first time we broke a game controller button from pressing too hard, and questioned why we did it.)

Technological evolution is good, but evolving in the wrong direction could sometimes be worse than not evolving at all.  Sensel is here to steer the evolution of the interface back in the right direction— from a limited “user interface” to a limitless “human interface”.  We believe that when you press on your controller harder, Yoshi should jump higher—case closed.

The Mechanics Behind The Magic

[by Stephanie Chedíd]

A multi-touch, pressure sensitive input device that can be used by artists, musicians, developers, gamers, and hobbyists alike sounds almost too good to be true.  Lucky for you, it’s not.

Before taking a deeper dive into the technology that makes Sensel what it is, let’s talk a bit about the competition (and how, some might say, it pales in comparison).  Currently, the most advanced technology apart from that which Sensel has created is Force Touch.  The force sensitivity in Force Touch was created by placing four force sensors on the computer’s touchpad, one on each corner.  Force Touch uses a capacitive sensor to detect fingers and other conductive objects.  These are some fancy words — what do they mean exactly?  Essentially, Force Touch can only detect fingers or objects like a stylus, but cannot detect other objects, like paintbrushes or a regular pen.  Furthermore, it only senses the overall force (i.e. the total pressure being applied by finger(s) to the touchpad).

Technology like Force Touch didn’t sound too shabby, until something better came along.  Enter Sensel.  Our team of dedicated engineers who started Sensel realized that the problem with FSR (Force Sensitive Resistor) was that they are generally low resolution and (until now) no one has been able to successfully make a high resolution array of FSRs that are cost effective.  You can call Sensel’s technology an “evolution” of FSR, as it’s based on the same general principles.  What was made, though, is truly a next generation technology.

Sensel has gotten rid of capacitive touch altogether.  We’ve created an extremely high resolution array of force sensors; the density of sensors in the product is 1 every square millimeter — that makes for over 500 sensors every square inch.  Additionally, Sensel uses standard manufacturing processes, allowing us to reliably build their product in high volume.

The three core innovations (from standard FSR) that Sensel has pioneered are as follows:

    1. Manufacturing: Sensel uses a new structure that allows us to take advantage of standard lithographic manufacturing processes (similar to how semiconductors are built).  In contrast, most FSRs available on the market today are screen printed (typically on a Mylar™ film), and thus cannot achieve high resolution or consistency, in comparison  to Sensel’s process.
    2. Force Sensing Layer: Our team worked closely with a material scientist to custom-formulate a “highly-tuned polymer layer” which gives the product the ability to sense force.  This material gives the product the ability to have very high sensitivity and a high dynamic range.  In other words, it can detect anything from a feather-light tap to a hard push.
    3. Electrical Drive Scheme:  Every kind of sensor that is created needs electronics to power it and read out signals.  We developed an electrical drive scheme — meaning that we came up with circuitry that allows us to read out a very high resolution sensor with low cost electronics, and do so very efficiently and quickly.  Low power consumption + High Speed + Low cost = awesome).

Also innovative is the company’s firmware.  Sensel is able to process everything in their firmware, rather than requiring special drivers, and has developed firmware that’s optimized towards scanning this specific sensor.

What does all of this mean for Sensel users?  If you’re using a Sensel product, you’re using the best multi-touch, force-sensitive input device available on the market.  Unlike the competition, this device can detect every object (from a finger to a paintbrush to cup) and senses the force of each touch, separately.  In other words, if you have four fingers on the device, it can detect how much pressure you are exerting with  each individual finger, and react accordingly (i.e. multi-touch force).  Sensel is also very scalable, meaning we can create the sensor in any size (ranging from a small watch to a table-sized sensor).

Whether you’re a DJ, a gamer, an artist, or an engineer, you can build, create, and innovate with Sensel technology. Fuel your creativity with a product made by innovators, for innovators, and a technology that stands out from the rest.