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British vibro pioneers say: Anything can be a speaker

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HiWave, the haptics company which emerged from Brit hi-fi consortium NXT with a mission to make our fondleslabs fondle us back, has fragmented into a part which makes money and the more-interesting Redux.

HiWave owned, and still owns, the technology developed by NXT to drive flat-panel speakers, but the executives were always more interested in haptic feedback - the ability to make screens vibrate to the touch. The company has continued bleeding cash despite being hugely slimmed down since the days when Quad, Mission and Wharfedale were writing the cheques. The speaker technology remains sound, and now HiWave Audio will continue licensing it to companies such as Boston Acoustics - despite being owned by creditor the Greenwich Loan Income Fund - while the newly-formed Redux LLP spins out with an exclusive licence for alternative applications.

Those applications include turning a tablet screen into a speaker, and making it vibrate to the touch: but to make screens feel like buttons one needs to add a little pressure, which is sadly lacking in today's offering.

Your correspondent scored a demo of that tech last year, and came away hugely impressed by the tactile feedback from an on-screen button, but to make that happen the screen had to detect pressure as well as presence - and that's an expensive addition to today's fondleware. HiWave was confident the technology would come, but it didn't, so Redux will be focusing on the anything-is-a-speaker side of things for the moment.

The technology is the same: inducing tiny vibrations into a flat surface which could be the back of a laptop, the screen of a fondlepad or the dashboard of a car. Once the speakers are in place then haptic feedback comes as a freebie, but making it stupendous needs that pressure detection which is still lacking.

Given the failure of HiWave to achieve significant sales we asked Redux (and former HiWave) CEO James Lewis what's changed in the last twelve months to make him so confident of success. We're told that the exciters are smaller, from the size of a 50-pence-piece to half that, and with three times the excitement potential, which is a start. Hardened glass, such as Corning's Gorilla brand, is apparently better at conveying sound and its increasing use in TV screens offers another avenue for sales.

Redux will also be customising each sale, making money from professional services rather than trying to create a product which can be dropped into an existing design, which is slightly ironic as it was demand for professional services which gave NXT such a hard time - NXT wanted to create technologies and licence them, while the licensees wanted NXT engineers to help them get it working.

That's a strategy suited to a smaller company, with fewer people (Redux retains the dozen-or-so headcount of HiWave), but it also limits the global aspirations of world domination.

Lewis reckons we'll see Redux tech in audio products first, speakers built into the screens of next-generation tabs, but - just like last year - he also talks excitedly about an automotive customer who's prepared to put pressure sensitivity into an electronic dashboard, while admitting it will be at least a couple of years before that's in showrooms.

NXT/HiWave/Redux remains a compelling technology, capable of delivering breathtaking demonstrations, but turning those demonstrations into products has proved incredibly difficult. The day when our fondleslabs start fondling back surely isn't far off, but whether Redux lasts long enough to supply the necessary technology is more open to debate. ®

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