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Guitar-playing keys enable extremely thin keyboards

With Strategic Polymers, you don't touch keypad, keypad touch YOU!

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CES 2013 A San Francisco company wants to help laptop, tablet, and smartphone manufacturers in their seemingly insatiable desire to create thinner and thinner devices. Its solution is to replace keyboards and other physical user-interface elements with electro mechanical polymer (EMP) keys that provide localized and individualized haptic feedback.

"We want to have the community designing thinner and thinner device," Strategic Polymers CEO Christophe Ramstein said at a press event at CES 2013 on Monday morning. "I don't know why they want thinner, but I'm saying 'I have a solution for you'!"

One thing holding back the drive to ultimate thinness is keyboards. "They can't get much thinner," Ramstein said. "There's a limit to physics." Additionally, on-screen soft keyboards with tiny keys are less than satisfying. "My fingers are not transparent," he said.

Then there are the neither-fish-nor-fowl keyboards, such as the one that doubles as a cover on the Microsoft surface. Ramstein isn't happy with that solution, either. "Have you ever tried the keyboard?" he asked his audience. "Beautiful technology, but I don't feel anything when I press the buttons."

The solution, Ramstein said, is an exceptionally thin keyboard that still manages to provide feedback to the fingers that touch it. And – suprise – that's what Strategic Polymers has developed and which he showed to his audience: the Awake haptic keyboard.

The Awake is a 1.5 millimeter–thick Bluetooth keyboard, with each key being an individual EMP unit capable of providing haptic feedback when touched. Being a first-generation prototype, the Awake doesn't take advantage of the EMP units' ability to deform – to rise up and push back when touched. Instead, each key merely provides vibration as feedback when pressed.

To Ramstein, though, even mere vibration is a vast improvement over, say, the Microsoft Surface keyboard, which just lies there pretty but inert. "Lovely, but I don't feel anything," he said of Redmond's inability to thrill his fingertips.

The EMP units that Strategic Polymers has created for the Awake keyboard and other prototypes are versatile li'l items. Not only can they provide vibration as feedback, but they can also deform by two to three millimeters and provide 30 to 50 grams of blocking force before being depressed, mimicking a physical keyboard. Each unit is around 100 microns thick and weighs less than a tenth of a gram.

Each EMP unit can also produce sound – and not just a buzz or click, but music as well. Ramstein demoed a tiny EMP key that, when touched, played a guitar riff. Not exactly thundering bass, as you may imagine, but impressive sound quality to your Reg reporter's ears.

In addition to the Awake keyboard, Ramstein demoed another prototype, the Backtouch smartphone. Less ambitious than the Awake, the Backtouch had just two of the EMP units on – where else? – its back. According to Ramstein, though, the addition of a second haptic unit to your smartphone can provide a host of benefits.

We say "second" because your smartphone alread has one haptic unit – that resonant or spinning actuator that vibrates your phone when you want to silence its ring. To Ramstein, a slow, bulky, spinning actuator is like an out-of-balance washing machine – a crude device. "When I spend four, six-hundred dollars for a smartphone, I wasn't something more than washing machine in it."

When you hold the Backtouch with your fingers on the two EMP units, Ramstein demonstrated, the device can vibrate to provide turn-right, turn-left navigational clues, can be tapped in preset patterns to launch apps without having to look at the screen, or perform other tricks that clever devs might come up with.

And Ramstein says his company is ready to start talking with developers and OEMs. "There are clearly opportunities for innovation and new functionality," he said. "We're just telling the world that, hey, the technology is here. Who wants to use it? Who wants to be first to market? Who has the guts to say, 'Let's bring haptics to the next level'?"

It somewhat ironic that the drive to extreme thinness would take guts, hmm? ®

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