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Touchpad Has 20,000 Sensors and Can Interpret 16 Touches at Once

Startup makes a touch- and force-sensitive surface that can transform itself into a piano or a painting canvas.

Force-sensitive technology can be used for all kinds of computer interactions, ranging from playing video games to controlling robots.

A startup is building a force- and touch-sensitive pad the size of a small tablet computer to serve as your next drum machine, QWERTY keyboard, painting canvas, or something else entirely.

Sensel’s Morph touch pad can sense many levels of force and many distinct touches at once, as shown with this visualization of data captured when a hand touches it.

Sensel wants its iPad-sized gadget, called the Sensel Morph, to be used as an alternative to a keyboard, mouse, or typical touch screen for all kinds of interactions with computers or tablets.

Unlike capacitive touch, which is the technology built into most smartphones and tablets and simply detects the presence of conductive objects like your fingers and special styluses, Sensel’s Morph relies on a grid of 20,000 tiny force sensors that can also figure out how hard all kinds of objects—fingers, brushes, pens—are pressing on it. Flexible overlays embedded with magnets can snap on top of the Morph, giving it the look of, say, a piano or drum pad, and software running on the Morph can interpret the touches (up to 16 at once) and will map them to the different interfaces, the company says.

The Sensel Morph’s force sensors can determine how hard all kinds of tools, such as paintbrushes, are pressing on it.

“That enables all these rich interactions, like we’re able to paint on the sensor with a paintbrush and actually capture the pressure of the brush,” says cofounder and CEO Ilya Rosenberg, who previously cofounded a pressure-sensing touch-screen company called Touchco that Amazon bought in 2010.

The Morph’s sensors measure the force, position, and shape of each touch from a finger or object. A polymer layer the company designed sits atop the sensors and helps them capture a large range of touches, say Rosenberg and cofounder and chief technology officer Aaron Zarraga. That way, users don’t have to consciously push down on the pad to increase the amount of pressure captured by the sensors. The Morph connects with a laptop or tablet via a USB cable or wirelessly with Bluetooth.

Sensel has seed funding and has already built a handful of sleek, functional Morph devices, but it’s turning to Kickstarter in hopes of raising more money to help build it into a mass-market product. The company’s crowdfunding campaign, which launched Tuesday, seeks to raise $60,000 by charging Kickstarter backers $249 apiece to buy the device with a few overlays (a handful of Morphs will sell to early funders for $199). Initially, it will be able to emulate a handful of basic computer interfaces like a trackpad, QWERTY keyboard, and MIDI instrument.

Flexible overlays embedded with magnets can sit atop the Morph, making it easier to use it for different activities.

Touching a Morph sensor is not like pressing a button; there’s no sense of give when you place a finger or tool on it. But a Morph set up with a laptop to visualize the basic pressure data shows how sensitive it is: when a mostly empty water bottle is placed atop the slate, the sloshing liquid immediately appears as an undulating yellow circle that rises and falls on screen.

While it may be tricky to convince the average person that he needs a gadget like the Morph, Sensel thinks it will appeal to a range of people who need fine-tuned controls for work on things like animation, video games, and music. The company also hopes people will come up with their own uses for it—they’re planning to let users access software to customize new ones, and share them with others.

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