Smart Skin now focusing on enhancing wireless devices with touch and a pressure-sensitive rubber lay
By John Pollack – Telegraph Journal | Link to original article
Since the release of the first iPhone in 2007, touchscreens have been a hot feature for many new devices.Though some hate them because of the lack of real keys that can be felt, others love touchscreens for the zooming or panning with the flick of a finger.
But a Fredericton startup is looking to change the way people interact with smartphones by making the entire surface of the device, not just the screen, touch sensitive.
Smart Skin Technologies Inc. has developed a basic prototype using nanotechnology to create a skin for a phone that can interpret touch commands on the back of the device.
« You could put another touchscreen on the back of the phone but then what you’ve got is twice as delicate, » says the company’s chief executive Kumaran Thillainadarajah, adding the smart skin also acts as a protective layer.
Touch sensitivity on the back of a phone could lead to a wide-range of possible functions that could be useful when the user doesn’t want to touch the screen, such as while talking on the phone or watching something on the screen, especially if it’s interactive like a videogame.
But Thillainadarajah says that because the smart skin can also interpret how hard the user pushes on the surface it creates an even broader range of new possibilities not yet commercially available.
He sees pressure-sensitivity being especially useful for video games.
« You are naturally doing things more intensely when the game is more intense, but the game can’t pick that up, » he says.
After taking apart physical smartphone keyboards, Thillainadarajah says his team could even create a tactile response in the rubber skin.
Thillainadarajah has been working with the nanotechnology for almost two years when he began working with Felipe Chibante, the Richard J. Currie chair in nanotechnology in the faculty of engineering at the University of New Brunswick.
Smart Skin won the young entrepreneur award at New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s Breakthru competition last year when the startup was focusing on applying the technology to prosthetic limbs.
The company was also selected in an online popularity contest connected to the event and won the chance to pitch to the investors on CBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den.’
Smart Skin’s pitch didn’t air in the winter 2010 season, but Thillainadarajah is still contractually bound to secrecy.
Smart Skin decided to switch its focus to smartphones because the development process is quicker and cheaper than it is for prosthetic limbs.
« It wasn’t a good fit for a startup, » he says of prostheses.
But Thillainadarajah says the money from a licensing agreement with a major smartphone maker would be able to fund research and development for other applications of the technology he’d like to explore.
Last month he attended the International CTIA Wireless trade show in Las Vegas, the biggest wireless conference in North America, where he says five smartphone makers expressed interest in using Smart Skin’s technology in their devices.
Thillainadarajah says he already has follow up meetings set with some of them to give them more information about his patent-pending technology and how the phones could use it, but would like to meet with all the major players before hammering out a deal with one of them.
It could be at least a year or two before Smart Skin’s technology would be used in any phones, he says.
But having phone makers’ interest is « light years » away from the technology being used in a device says, London, Ont.-based technology analyst Carmi Levy.
« It’s all just talk until they sign a major vendor like Apple, Research In Motion or HTC and the technology begins appearing in real-world smartphones, » he says in an email. « Until then, it’s all potential, and unfortunately potential doesn’t pay the bills. »
But Levy says the move to the smartphone market was a great decision because it’s « a global market with years of steep growth ahead of it. »
« But it’s also a market marked by brutal competition on virtually every level, » he says, « just the kind of environment that can chew up and spit out a small startup without deep pockets, iron-clad partnerships with handset vendors, or both. »
Thillainadarajah says that while there is plenty of competition on the touch-sensitivity side, there is less for the pressure sensitivity, at least that he knows of.
He has heard of others focusing on enhancing the screen itself – rather than the rest of the device – which have been purchased by some of the smartphone makers.
But everyone is keeping a low profile – and Smart Skin is very careful about what details it releases – so it’s hard to know exactly how much competition there is.
With many smartphone makers suing each other over claims their competitors are copying their patented technology, Smart Skin has to be very careful about how it continues to develop its technology.
But because of the pressure sensing technology, Thillainadarajah says the company can copy existing functions without violating technology patents.
« We could easily replace a long press with a hard press and that’s a clear work around on Apple’s IP, » he says referring to the iPhone function to edit icon layout.
Since Smart Skin isn’t interested in mass producing the technology itself, the startup is looking for a licensing agreement with a smartphone maker, or perhaps an accessory maker, though Thillainadarajah says the technology is more likely to reach its full potential if integrated into the device.
With startups like Smart Skin – that enhance major technology company’s product or service – being acquire almost every week Thillainadarajah says the company would « of course » be open to any purchase offer.