The Maker

A device that can be used out of the box for artists and musicians, but also be hacked by those more technically inclined, will inevitably have a large breadth of uses.  In order to help our community get a better picture of how truly extensive the possibilities are with Sensel’s first product, The Morph, we’ve decided to show them.

In the next three weeks, we will be releasing 3 videos, with more to come after our launch.  Each video will manifest one of the many ways that The Morph can be used.  The next two video releases will show the out-of-the box uses for the device with art and music.

This week’s video, however, focuses on the maker community and the “hack-ability” of our device.  At Sensel, we love having a product that is ready-to-go as is, but also hack-able for those who dare to create and innovate with technology.  Never before has such levels pressure sensitivity and multi-touch been integrated into maker projects (or even regular consumer products)– it’s almost like the maker community will be getting a new sixth sense to play around with; we’re so excited to see what they’ll create with this new technology!

Whether people decide to use it for IoT, to create a more natural gaming experience by using it as a controller, or in bringing their product to the next level of touch-technology, using the Sensel Morph will allow them to do things that haven’t been done before.

But, back to this week’s star: Ray Kampmeier.  Ray is an engineer, maker, and hobbyist from Minnesota who now resides in SF in order to live and breath tech.  Ray used The Morph as a controller for a robot arm.  It’s as awesome as it sounds (as you can see from the video).  We had some time to ask Ray about his experience and thoughts on the device.

Here’s is the Q&A with Ray that we wanted to share with our community:

S: When using the morph as a touch surface, what’s different about it versus a traditional track pad or capacitive pad?

R: The range of pressure sensing on this is better than any others I have seen. It’s really high resolution.  When the team at Sensel demonstrated the device to me, they had ran a napkin across the pad and The Morph was able to pick up the touch of this napkin and that blew me away. I’d never seen anything like that before.  Something like a paintbrush, a piece of paper, or an object as light as a napkin is able to record touch events on this pad and that, to me, is going to be revolutionary in this space.  At that moment it sort of unlocked a bunch of ideas in my mind for what we could use this pad for.

S: What were some of your ideas for how it could be used?

R: This is the first time you can control something so complex with a single hand.  There are only so many gestures you can achieve with five points of contact and adding that pressure domain totally opens it up, there are so many more permutations of gestures and movements that you can apply on this pad.  It could be vehicle control– you could be sitting in a car and controlling it entirely with all with one hand.  We could have elements of musical performance or theater controlled with a single hand.  It opens up so many possibilities: if an artist or performer is using one hand for one thing, they could have some very rich control with their other hand on a platform like The Morph.

I also think of music performances, DJ sets, laser shows.  If you have people who are in charge of effects and lighting and able to control those elements with this device, their experience would be much more fluid…it could turn it much more into a real-time performance, rather than playback; it’s less like a movie and more like an immersive experience.

In installation art, if you have these devices embedded in some art pieces and viewers are able to touch and explore and contact this device and see how it’s used to manipulate something, I think that would be a really magical sensation. For example, if the lighting is controlled by the Sensel Morph, viewers and attendees can explore this and touch and see how deep the levels of interaction with this pad are– because of the pressure sensitivity there’s so many ways someone could explore this device. Those are just some of the first uses I thought of since I often do work in instillation art and with lighting on DJ sets. It’s kind of crazy to think a DJ could be using the device to make beats and I could be using the same device to control lights. It’s just so versatile. Which I guess is where the name “Morph” came from.

S: What was the first thing you created with The Morph?

R: I had this idea to control a servo robot arm.  I was looking at The Morph and thinking, “how could I use this in a way that no other traditional pad has been used.”  I thought, the pressure sensitivity could add a new element, a new range of motion, so perhaps with one human hand I could use all the gestures of this pad to control a mechanical arm. So I got a real nifty acrylic laser-cut robot arm that’s controlled by four servo motors and mapped them to about four different gestures on the Sensel Morph.

S: Can you dive a bit into the gestures you set up for the control?

R: So there’s one where you’re putting five contact points down and you’re twisting your wrist and that will rotate the base of the robot arm.  There’s another gesture when you’re applying force on your four finger tips and that will raise and lower the robot arm. The xy location will extend or retract the arm. And finally– this is a really fun one– when you pinch all five fingertips together on the center of the pad, that will close the claw on the robot arm.  I thought it was a fun little demonstration of a new way you can use the touch surface to control physical things.

S: Where do you really see the pressure-sensitivity coming into play when you control the arm?

R: It’s a surprising element.  The pressure-sensitive touch aspect is something that people aren’t familiar with or used to on a touch surface like this. When you want the robot arm to lower, it’s almost an instinctive feeling to want to apply pressure and push your fingers into the pad, and I think it’s a surprise for the person controlling it that it actually does respond to that gesture. That gesture that you thought was just a natural response to the action you’re trying to perform is just another element this pad is picking up. It really adds a new dimension to user-device interaction that hasn’t been experienced before.  It feels natural.

Without the force sensitivity, I don’t think it would have been as magical of an experience for me to control the robot arm . It would have been a pretty binary detection of force—you have applied force and you have not-applied force. In this device, there’s a very robust range of force sensing. That level of control, and seeing that in the robot arm, gives a magical sense of feedback.

S:   What were your thoughts on the API? What was it like to program?

R: I was provided an API in Processing. I was pretty surprised with how straightforward the API was.  I’ve used other ones where they’re just dumping a bunch of data at me, and I don’t know what to do with it and have to really look into what I’m intended to do with that data.  In this case it was very simple and easy to use. It provides things like contact recognition so I don’t need to program the functionality of individually detecting contacts, that’s done for me. It tells me the pressure of certain contacts. It gives me the unique ID for contacts so as I drag my thumb across the screen and I have other points of contact down, I maintain a common handle on that thumb so I can reference where that thumb is as I drag it around.  It’ll tell you the surface area of the contacts, XY location, unique ID, it will even tell an orientation.  So, it’s a pretty robust set of features that’s provided to you by the API, and the Processing support is huge in the maker community so that’s great.

S: What do u think Sensel means for the maker community?

R: I think Sensel’s technology is opening up a new way to control things.  It can be used as a controller, but also for music, art, gaming, for the maker community– we can give these new sort of immersive experiences to friends and customers.  In my application I’m having it control a robot, which is just a novel little example of what it could do, but it could be so much more than that.  For makers, I’m really excited to see what people do with it. It really adds a whole new dimension of interaction and I think people will do some really awesome things with this kind of advanced input device.

A special thanks to Ray Kampmeier for letting us pick his brain. Stay tuned for more Q&A with artists and musicians who are using the Morph to create!

Here is a link to the code he used to control the robot arm if you’d like to take a stab at it yourself!

Check out the project on Ray’s website!