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Trend toward Thinner, Lighter Devices Highlights Need for Tactile Feedback
Novasentis has developed what is reported to be the thinnest and most flexible Electro-Mechanical Polymer (EMP) haptic actuator and sensor technology in the world today. The technology is intended for OEM product designers, who can use it to develop mobile and wearable products that come alive with movement and sound.
Photo courtesy of Novasentis, Inc.Creator of what is reported to be the world's thinnest actuator, Novasentis is enabling a new generation of ultra- thin, flexible, and light devices that bring new sensory and emotional experiences to users.Christophe Ramstein, president and CEO of Novasentis, Inc., wants to welcome you to the Neo-Sensory Age, a time of animated electronic devices that convey information in new ways by "coming alive" with vibration, sound, and real-time surface deformation. We're at the dawn of this new era, he says, because technology innovation is making it possible to transform our receipt of digital information into audio and tactile experiences that enrich and bring a whole new dimension to our lives. For product designers and manufacturers, Ramstein sees it as an opportunity to obtain competitive advantage through innovative device designs and new form factors.Novasentis, a Burlingame, Calif.-based developer of sensory feedback technology, has pulled back the curtains on what its backers believe are infinite product design possibilities by introducing an innovative Electro-Mechanical Polymer (EMP) actuator and sensor technology that allows OEMs to integrate customizable haptics into smartphones, tablets, and a variety of other mobile and wearable devices.
"Smartphones, tablets, keyboards—those devices are getting thinner and thinner," Ramstein said in an interview at the 2014 International CES in Las Vegas in January. "And as they get thinner, we lose the tactile part of it. We bring the tactile feedback to the thin technology that is becoming the defacto."
The company won the 2014 CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award in the Embedded Technologies category for its EMP technology, reported to be the thinnest and most flexible EMP haptic actuator and sensor technology in the world today. "What won the award is a revolution—plastic that is ultra thin, flexible, and customizable," Ramstein said. "It creates vibrations, sounds, and deformation, and it's both a sensor and a capacitor."
At CES, Ramstein offered demos of Novasentis' newest product concepts, as well as a "sneak peek" at products the company plans to deliver next year, to members of the press. Response to the EMP technology to this point has been "spectacular," Ramstein said."People look at this technology and call it magical, surprising, because there's something mesmerizing about a material that changes shape," Ramstein said. "Nothing has been done like that, especially; no one has brought any technology to this point where people can see how you could use it in consumer electronic devices."The technology can be used to enable localized haptics on electronic devices via Novasentis' Clic® 1010 EMP actuator, released in January as the first in the company's Clic® Actuator family. Measuring 10mm x 10mm in size and less than 120 microns thick, the ultra-thin Clic 1010 EMP actuators are said to act as a "second skin" that brings electronic devices alive by providing users with localized tactile and acoustic effects right under their fingers. Localized haptics provide users with touch feedback on one area of a device at a time, such as when you would feel only the top of your smartphone vibrating, as opposed to, say the bottom, middle, or back of the phone."Because of their form factor, we can now put localized haptics almost anywhere on the phone," said Ramstein. "Today, all the phones have vibrations for the entire body of the phone. But imagine that you hold your phone in your hand and you feel vibrations on the left if it's time, for example, to make a left turn, and on the right if it's time to make a right turn. Wearable devices are another good example. Imagine you have two actuators: one underneath your wrist takes your pulse, the other one is on the other side, on top of your wrist. Let's say the one underneath your wrist is for everything that is personal because it's close to your heart—family, children, spouse. The other one is all related to business. Without looking at it, I know that what comes from here [underneath the wrist] is something that is personal. It's very natural; we don't have to think about it."In addition to smartphones and wearable devices, applications for the Clic 1010 EMP haptic actuators include tablets, keyboards, laptops and ultrabooks, gaming accessories, and home appliances. Novasentis can customize the actuators according to customer needs and is currently taking orders with a lead time of three months.The EMP technology can also be used to provide multi-touch haptics, or 4D haptics. "It's the ability to have multiple areas of my device that give me different feedback at one given time," said Ramstein. "Localized haptics is I can have the back of my phone not vibrating while I feel it only on the top.
"When I zoom out and in, I want the ability to feel two different things because I have two fingers in touch with my touchscreen," he continued. "One, for example, tells me 'Hey, I'm going over an ad,' and I want to feel the ad with one finger. While the other one is telling me I'm just hitting the edge of my screen. So to me, it's simply the ability in real life, when I use my fingers, I don't have one vibration for my entire body. Each of my fingers will give me a different sensation when I move my fingers over a piece of paper. That is multi-touch, or 4D haptics."Ramstein, an expert in haptics and sensory technologies whose startup, Haptic Technologies, was acquired by Immersion Corporation in 2000, observed that the trend toward thinner and thinner keyboards for notebooks was making it difficult for users to know if they had clicked the right keys or if their clicks had registered. "By making keyboards thinner, you lose the richness of the tactile feel, and that is something that end users don't like," he said. "We're losing tactile response, and we decided we have to address that problem."Novasentis addressed the problem by developing its AwakeTM Keyboard, a light, ultra-thin keyboard that gives users quick tactile response in the form of vibrations and collocated sound effects. The keyboard, powered by Novasentis' Clic Series actuators, provides users the feedback they need "to define in real time how much force they need to apply to get the system to respond," said Ramstein. "How do you know that the computer took a letter after you hit the key if you don't get feedback other than a sound, other than you looking at the screen? Most people don't look at the screen. So simple vibrations and collocated sound simply tell you how much force you have applied to get the feedback. If I get feedback when I hit the key, I know that I did what I wanted to do."When you type text on a touchscreen, you feel nothing but the screen; it's a flat piece of glass," he continued. "So the ability to bring vibrations confirmation gives you the ability to feel that it's responding to some actions. To me, 'alive' has to do with interaction; we get a response. Bringing me live devices has to do with giving me feedback that I can sense, so that means bringing more sensing to the device and bringing better vibra-tactile information."Ramstein also sees the need for haptics in wearable computing, an area that he says has less need for multi-touch touchscreens and displays. Wearable devices typically are smaller and closer to the body. Some have no screens; others have small screens with "barely enough room to select something," he said. "While those are not flat, they need technology to give feedback to the end users."The problem is that existing haptic technologies are too big and too bulky for wearable devices, which are supposed to be thinner and smaller. So the question becomes how to make actuators thinner. According to Ramstein, polymers do a good job of answering and addressing that problem."The polymers we're talking about are ferroelectric relaxers, so that means that the plastic stretches when you apply voltage to it," he explained. "And you can make very thin plastics; ours is 120 microns thin, and this includes the substrate that goes on top of it. We're using the same material for sensing and for vibrating, and it's very thin to do both."The other thing is you can shape the polymers the way you want them," he added. "You want a donut shape because you want backlighting? Not a problem. Do you want bigger, or do you want smaller? From a manufacturing standpoint, it's much easier to handle than having this bulky mass, where, if you want it, you need to redesign it and change the manufacturing tools. We don't have this problem. We may have some tooling changes to do, but it's definitely not as dramatic as having to change the structure."According to Novasentis, its EMP actuators and sensors are based on a scientific discovery made in the year 2000 regarding a new class of ferroelectric material. The EMP, described as an ultra-thin, light, and flexible film that has electro-active properties, is a piezoelectric polymer material that elongates when an electric field is applied. When deformed by an applied physical force, such as the pressure of a fingertip, it produces an electric charge."This is a ferroelectric material, a plastic-based, ferroelectric relaxer," said Ramstein. "When you apply voltage to it, it deforms, and when we deform it, it creates an electric [charge]. "It's lighter and more robust than ceramic, so it's surviving shock better than materials like piezoceramic. It's thin, light, and shapeable."The company also demonstrated its 2-in-1 Dual Switch Sensor and Actuator, reported to provide the "thinnest switch sensor with HD haptics and collocated sounds on the market." Besides providing excellent haptic and sound effects, the technology is customizable to manufacturer specifications, enabling new form factors and functionality, according to Ramstein."It's customization in two directions; one is the form factor," said Ramstein. "We can make the sensors very small, and obviously, very thin, and we can make the actuators very small. Or they could be the size they have. So we can customize them in the sense that the technology today is a 10 mm device and we can make it smaller, or we can make it bigger."The second direction is, depending on what your switch is, we just need to put the sensors and the actuators underneath. I can do a line of 4 buttons; I can do a matrix of 2 by 2—the traces and the connectors. It gives huge flexibility from a design standpoint. It's flexible, so we can be on a flat surface or a flexible one. We can put this on the side of the table because we can conform the shape of this flexible plastic to almost any shape. So you don't have to think of switches anymore as a flat object. You can imagine a sphere, and the inside of the sphere having these actuators, so when you press on the surface, it is not flat; you can feel something. But the point here is that sensing is one part of it, but more important is the feedback you are getting."As part of a new branding and marketing program, Novasentis recently changed its name from Strategic Polymer Sciences, Inc. The new branding campaign focuses on the company's technology innovation and vision to create a Neo-Sensory age in which "previously lifeless devices come alive with collocated touch feedback, vibrations, sounds, movement, and real-time surface deformation.""Our vision is to enable device manufacturers to create products that take human-machine interaction to the next level by adding true vibrations, movements, and sounds," Ramstein said in a release last fall, when the company announced that it raised a Series B funding round of $8 million with new investors Samsung Venture Investment Corporation (Samsung Ventures) and Chengwei Capital. "With its proprietary features, ultra-thin and light form factors, and commercial viability, our EMP actuator and sensor technology is the perfect way to usher in this new age—which will bring with it even thinner and smaller devices that expand our sensory experiences."As the trend toward thinner and thinner devices impacts wearable devices, medical applications, and more, Ramstein anticipates a huge market opening up for haptic-enabled keyboards and other devices."I think haptics is just going to be part of a main differentiator in the coming years," he said. "Again, wearable computing—there's no screen anymore. How do you tell users that something needs to be done? And the bold key devices will last for a little while, but we need to move on to something bigger. So I think haptics is going to go from a 'nice to have' to a 'must have.' Because technology is getting thinner, lighter, and more portable, and by portable I mean wearable—hearing aids and goggles, shoes, T-shirts."Does he see Novasentis as having a niche in wearable devices or medical, or is it spread out among different sectors?"I think we have choices because it's a multifunctional technology platform that can be used in different applications," he replied. "There's nothing else today that can do what this can do. I see consumer electronics as clearly a big win; medical is another one. Capacitors are a $7 billion market, and this technology can be used as a thin speaker as well."Novasentis employs about 30 people, with about 20 working in final assembly and testing at the company's manufacturing plants in State College, Pennsylvania. Its suppliers handle all processes—which Ramstein said involves mostly roll-to-roll processing of thin, conductive plastic material—except assembly and testing of the actuators and sensors, said Ramstein."Most of our suppliers are in the U.S.," he said. "We try to really push for using American manpower as much as possible. There are a few exceptions, but that's because we can't do it in the States."Novasentis is at a critical point in its development as a company, where becoming a manufacturer involves taking on the simultaneous challenges of implementing high quality and reliability into its operations while continuing to grow. That means working to establish quality management systems, including ISO 9001:2008, as well as working through various partner qualification programs."Our challenge is to bring this product to a level of quality that is acceptable to OEMs," said Ramstein. "When you work with OEMs, as good as your technology is on the R&D side, they want you to comply to some rules. We have to go through that, and that is our main challenge. The next part of the challenge is, clearly, having the OEMs signing up to design us [EMP] into their products."We are going to have a few design wins, and I think this company is going to grow, reaching profitability, hopefully, within a couple of years," he continued. "Working with the OEMs and hitting the big home runs is mostly a question of doing what we need to get reliable, high quality to our products. That is the main hurdle between where we are and becoming a successful company."
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