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Nanoport is launching its Titan Haptics division today as part of its move to create haptics, or touch feedback, for virtual buttons in smartphones.

Titan Haptics uses the technology created by the Toronto-based Nanoport, which uses a kind of magnet technology, dubbed Linear Magnetic Ram (LMR), to make tiny little motors that can produce the sensation of touch feedback with a smartphone surface, such as the side of a phone. You press the side, triggering the LMR, and it feels like you’re pressing a physical button.

Titan Haptics will license this technology in a bundle with motor licensing from Immersion, a publicly traded company that has a lot of patents around haptic technology. Haptics remains one of the hardest things to get right in games, where virtual tasks like reloading a gun is supposed to feel more realistic because you get force feedback from a game controller.

The company is launching a dedicated commercial program along with a new mobile actuator. Nicknamed Grenville, this miniaturized component brings the features and benefits of LMR technology to smaller, portable devices like smartphones, wearables, and handheld game consoles. It can also be used in virtual reality headsets, and it has licensed it to location-based entertainment company Striker VR, said Titan Haptics founder Tim Szeto in an interview with GamesBeat.

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“We know about HD for audio and video; it’s time for touch to have an HD upgrade,” Szeto said. “Touch is an opportunity to offer  differentiated experiences not just for gaming, but new use cases too, like music and virtual buttons on touchscreens.”

As growth in gaming continues, especially in the areas of augmented reality and the metaverse, haptic feedback features are rising to be a unique differentiator in the competitive hardware market.

The company started as Nanoport, a research and development lab. Now it is spinning out Titan Haptics as a commercial business. Nanoport has about 20 people, and it is the largest shareholder in Titan Haptics. It’s is in the process of raising a round of money.

“We’re spinning out our haptics company. It’s gone really well in the lab. Then we had a lot of traction and interest from all sorts of folks from industry,” Szeto said. “The timing is right.”

Origins

Above: Titan Haptics’ LMR actuator uses magnets for haptic feedback.

Image Credit: Titan Haptics

The tech development started in 2017, when Nanoport started to focus on magnetic arrays and how they could be controlled and produced in mass quantities.

“Getting something from the lab to mass-producible and reliable is a tall order,” Szeto said. “So it did take some time. We’ve had some incredible progress, even during COVID, actually.”

Initially, Nanoport was trying to solve a problem for foldable devices and modular devices, where you combine different devices together. The question was whether there could be buttons in the places where the folding happened. But the company then decided to come up with a very realistic button press that felt like you were pressing a button, even though it was a “software-defined button,” not an actual physical button.

It’s similar to the idea of getting force feedback when you press something on a touchscreen, rather than a physical button. In this case, with software-defined buttons, conventional haptics didn’t really work.

“So we came up with this technology to solve that problem of having a very realistic button press on the edge of a device, even though it’s a software-defined button,” Szeto said.

Unconventional

Conventional haptic devices use tiny piezoelectric springs to oscillate and produce a feeling of touch feedback. That’s how most modern haptics from companies like Immersion work. But Nanoport doesn’t use any springs. Instead, it uses magnetic arrays.

“You can think of either a maglev train or you those desk ornaments that seem to levitate in the air,” Szeto said. “Those kinds of magnetic arrays are what we’ve taken and miniaturized in a passive format, so it doesn’t require power, and then implemented it inside of a haptic device. The cool thing about that is that, without springs, you have just one moving part now, instead of a complex mechanism.”

With this mechanism, you can cause an object to move and make it hit the side of a device and produce impact that feels like genuine haptics, like the feeling of a button being pressed.

“When you click the diaphragm button on the side, it’s actually a very nice, sharp click, make a high G-force-kind of very short click,” Szeto said. “That’s how we’ve incorporated this type of approach into haptics. And it turns out that, beyond this benefit, there are quite a lot of other ones as well.”

Nanoport spent the last few years figuring on the physics.

“Piezoelectrics are good for like very short distance vibrations, with high frequency and short travel,” Szeto said. “Those are very different from gaming haptics, where you want a lot of displacement. So when something vibrates, you want it to move to have significant motion like in a gaming controller. You feel it rumble.”

Doing the physics simulations on this took a long time. Szeto said the resulting actuator, or motor, is a lot smaller than others. A lot of that is due to replacing the springs with solid-state suspension, he said.

Licensing

The company has worked in tandem with Immersion, which has a large patent portfolio with haptics. So now it has a rare business opportunity, because it can now license its own tech to customers at the same time it licenses Immersion’s haptic patents as well.

“We’re hoping to find a way to streamline this not just for ourselves but for the industry,” Szeto said.

Unlike audio and video, HD touch is a new technology stack, facing the same challenges of any new technology introduction. There are few experts in the industry with the multidisciplinary experience needed for integrating the various components, electronics, software, and intellectual property.

To streamline integrations, Titan offers firmware, software, application programming interfaces (APIs), and blueprint reference designs alongside its motors. Reference designs speed up the engineering and integration process for common gaming, smartphones and touchscreen products.

In 2018, Nanoport announced a new haptic motor for VR and gaming accessories that generates strong HD touch sensations in a simple and compact design.

In 2019, Nanoport presented a design for a universal haptics protocol at the Smart Haptics industry conference. In 2020 Nanoport helped found the Haptics Industry Forum, chairing a key workgroup to harmonize protocols later in 2021.

Szeto thinks of Titan as the high-end of haptics, and it could work for things like virtual reality and smartphones. Its first partnership is with Striker VR, a location-based entertainment company.

“It lets you generate things like extremely high G-force gunshots,” he said. “You can use it for things like military training or location-based VR.”

The company hopes to have more announcements coming later this year.

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