In my hands is a metal-cased phone, with no buttons. I’m scrolling through a browser, by running my finger down the side of the phone. Now, I’m adjusting volume by pressing down on areas, which become my volume buttons. Now the camera app is opened, and suddenly the top edge becomes my shutter button.
I’ve seen touch-sensitive areas to phones and wearable devices before. But I’ve never seen an entire phone case become a touch surface. That’s exactly what San Jose startup Sentons is trying to do, with ultrasonics that work like sonar to register touch and pressure anywhere on a gadget’s surface. The possibilities seem incredibly weird, and extremely useful.
Sentons already has one phone using its technology: thehas “air triggers” at the top that are pressure-sensitive touch zones. Vibrating haptics give feedback when they’re pressed. Playing a first-person shooter on the phone in a demo, the trigger zones feel as useful as analog buttons.
Sentons sees a case for far more than gaming, though. This ultrasonic technology could work on any surface, or any shape, in what the company says could be a wide range of materials: metal, wood, leather. Pressure sensitivity can range from 5 grams to 5 kilograms of force, which sounds shockingly robust.
I ask about whether this tech could even become some sort of future replacement forscreen tech. Right now, Sentons is staying away from screens, and focusing on every other part of phones and electronics. Maybe screens could be next. Someday, but not now: the display is already “more heavily occupied,” Sentons CEO Jess Lee said in a meeting where I demoed the tech.
The technology works by using transducers that run under the body of a phone or other device: I see the inside of the company’s dev kit phone case, which uses a spidery array of thin wires. The ultrasonic pings form a map of the device surface, and can detect pressure, touch, and begin to understand context, like whether you’re holding the phone or not, which can work to bring up specific touch mappings or even deactivate it in your pocket so there won’t be accidental virtual button presses.
Sentons tech is slated to be in several other phones by the end of the year, and Lee sees wearables and cameras as a big interest area, too. The ultrasonic touch-sensitive tech is waterproof, so it could be perfect for replacing buttons on underwater cameras or swim-friendly watches. Lee also suggests the tech could work into devices like blood pressure cuffs, detecting whether a cuff has the correct fit.
What seems possible, maybe, is integrating this tech into fabric or wearables, much likedoes in a limited way in smart clothing like Levi’s jackets or backpack straps. It’s not clear how flexible a device could be while using this tech, which makes me wonder about it working for super-flexible phones, although the ultrasonic tech is made to keep pinging and changing its surface map over time, to account for possible damage or dings.
While the ultrasonic tech is made to work with skin contact, wearing gloves should be fine too, although I haven’t tested to confirm. The one area that’s a challenge, according to Lee: “Gels are hard.”
My mind races to things like earbuds, or connected styli like Samsung’s S-Pen or the Apple Pencil, or smart glasses, where touch controls could be fitted into unusual geometries. For now, Sentons is starting with a developer phone and a platform called SurfaceWave for building gestures and interactions on future devices.
Much like Google’son the , the world of ambient and gesture interfaces requires a new language, and it’s hard to get feedback without screens. Sentons’ tech could at least benefit from haptics, offering vibrating interaction along with pressure to create a feeling of tactile interaction. Maybe, in AR or VR, that could be used to create new types of touch controls. That certainly seems to be Lee’s plan, at least.
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