Startup Senseg promises “game changing” tactile technology

Imagine this: an iPhone with a keyboard you can actually feel, even though there are no physical keys.

That’s the goal that many mobile phone suppliers including Apple would love to reach. Touch and feel screens in mobile phones are already available, at least from Samsung and LG, but it seems to be difficult to create a technology that works well enough.

Senseg, a Finnish startup, says that E-Sense, the tactile interface technology they have developed, will be the game changer. E-Sense generates the feel of virtual buttons on smooth surfaces like cell phone or computer screens and gives tactile feedback to the user.

The difference between E-Sense and the other haptic, or tactile, technologies, such as Nintendo Wii, or the ones Silicon Valley based Immersion has introduced and reportedly sold licenses to Nokia and Apple for, is that Senseg’s technology is not powered by mechanical motors but is based on virtual touch technology.

“With E-Sense, we don’t need the whole device to vibrate, instead the tactile feedback can appear in certain small areas of the surface,” says Dr. Ville Makinen, the CEO of Senseg, who invented the technology.

The sensations can be located precisely in very small areas of the screen, and increasing the resolution of “tixels” (as Senseg calls the touch elements on a screen), screen makers can enrich tactile feedback.  

According to Senseg, that’s not E-Sense’s only advantage over other haptic technologies. Because E-Sense doesn’t need a vibration motor to create tactile feedback, it has no mechanical parts that can wear out.

The technology can be used in a wide range of surfaces because it is embedded into a thin, flexible film that can be added to almost any kind of surface, even vowen into clothing materials.  

E-Sense can be used, for example, with the GPS navigation system in your car. When driving, the tactile cues in the screen guide your fingers to touch the right buttons without looking at the screen.

Or imagine playing a video game such as Super Mario Brothers. When you give a boost to Mario, you can feel the boost in your hand as a rapid movement that would be produced by Senseg’s E-Sense Module in the game controller. And as the boost gets weaker, the pace of E-Sense decreases, then disappears.

One more example of the technology: When using Microsoft Surface, an electronic touch screen table PC, with Senseg’s E-Sense Module, you can get tactile feedback when clicking an item. When dragging a file, low level vibration guides the finger through the screen.

This sounds like it’s from a science fiction movie, and it’s hard to believe without seeing, especially when the company compares its technology to a kind of artificially created sixth sense.

Makinen says E-Sense also enables Touch over IP. Just as Voice over IP can transfer voice via the Internet, Touch over IP is supposed to transfer the sense of touch.

“In the future, your sweetheart can draw a heart to you, anywhere in the world he or she might be, and you can feel the heart in the mousepad-like thing attached to your USB-port,” Makinen says.

Senseg’s technology has several patents pending, and the company was recently funded by Ambient Sound Investments, an Estonian investment group run by four engineers who were behind the development of Skype‘s technology, and Seed Fund Vera, a Finnish seed fund. The amount of investment hasn’t been revealed.

Senseg is going to sell its technology in a combination of a hardware and software platforms embedded with several software elements providing content. The technology will be available for a select group of manufacturers in the second half of 2008, and the first products with the technology should be launched early next year.