Able Planet

Haptic feedback, which sends touch pulses into your  fingertips, has been heavily used in game controllers. But now a division of Germany’s Bayer has developed a touch-feedback technology that can enhance the way you hear things as well. And Able Planet, a maker of headphones and other devices, is one of the first companies to show off the new technology.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, Able Planet will show next-generation audio headphones, communications devices, and hearing aids that make use of Bayer’s ViviTouch electroactive polymer technology, which consists of an actuator, or tiny motor, on a thin plastic film. When attached to a solid mass, the film can make a device vibrate as electricity courses through it. In the case of audio, it can deliver a deeper feel for bass sounds. It makes a headphone vibrate as if it had the benefit of a subwoofer.

Able Planet and Bayer MaterialScience’s Artificial Muscle division will jointly design and manufacture new devices that marry the two technologies in products with better sound quality, clarity, and speech intelligibility. They want to overcome problems in reproducing live sound, where fuller sounds can mask high tones and make speech and music sound muddled.

The film is form-fitted onto an audio device, creating a wide area of surface contact with the skin or the inside of the ear canal. The film moves when it receives a current.

“The pairing of Bayer and Able Planet technologies is expected to create the next generation of audio and communication products in some of the world’s most rapidly growing consumer electronics markets,” said Dirk Schapeler, CEO of Artificial Muscle, in a statement.

Able Planet has made audio and communication devices for the past seven years, with applications in both headphones and hearing aids.

Artificial Muscle is a partner with Immersion, a pioneering haptics firm that has a lot of patents in the fundamental technology behind touch feedback. The advantage of the film is that it consumes 70 percent less energy than a typical motor; it also moves a lot faster. By the time you get a touch effect from a typical motor, the image associated with it may be gone from a screen. But the Artificial Muscle actuator can respond within 5 milliseconds.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Artificial Muscle was founded in 2004 as a spinoff from the famous Silicon Valley research lab SRI. It was acquired by Bayer Material Science in Germany.