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This California Startup May Just Have Spelt The Death Of All Mechanical Buttons

This California Startup May Just Have Spelt The Death Of All Mechanical Buttons

Sameer Balaganur

With so many devices around with touch sensors, the time of mechanical buttons coming to an end is inevitable. Now a San-Jose California based startup UltraSense has come up with a new technology that uses ultrasound sensors to enable multi-functional touch interface plans. Interestingly, these ultrasound sensors can be used to sense movements and gestures on any material of any thickness — be glass, plastic, metal or even wood.

The 2-year old startup introduced its new system-on-chips product family called TouchPoint, which uses the Ultrasound sensors technology. Released earlier this week, the company said that they had released a chip which has a size of about a ballpoint head of a pen which can be tapped and used for functions like volume control, which will replace the need of volume buttons. Not only does this technology allow independent touch operation in a device or any material, but the user can also use gestures to get the task done.

The Technology Behind The Innovation

Each TouchPoint sensor includes an input detection machine learning classifier algorithm, whose purpose is to monitor changes. These changes are in acoustic properties, classifying input materials, dynamic adjustment for manufacturing variations and changes in environmental conditions, resulting in minimal development tuning and faster production of the product to the market.



The UltraSense ultrasound sensor-on-chip works by sending out and receiving signals, just like the ultrasound system used to view and examine the body parts in humans. But the difference here is that instead of showing the results visually, this technology uses the data to recognise and translate surface signal reflection, fingerprint ridge deformation and time.

Now, when it comes to sensor and buttons, especially in the application of ‘long press’ options, the TouchPoint sensors can tell the difference between a touch and deep press using the 3D Z-Force ultrasound sensing. This is the technology which provides gram-force measurement in applications that require gloves, external cases and water ice rejection.


W3Schools

When there are so many sensors embedded in a device, one might think whether each sensor will be able to act independently. The answer is yes because each sensor has its necessary algorithm embedded into itself, which allows the sensor to act as a standalone button or a space for taps, swipes and holds. With the ultrasound sensors, it will also be possible to control your devices with gestures on any surface.

Power Consumption

The power consumption depends up the type of material that the tech is being used on. The localised touch sensors come in tiny packages and consume mere uAs of current, and these are in ‘always on’ mode.

For applications where there is less need for power saving, certain TouchPoint sensors include large drivers who have higher operating voltages to transmit the ultrasound beam through very thick materials (>2.5mm/1 inch) 

Uses

With such an exciting tech, let us explicitly list out some of the use cases of TouchPoint sensors:

  • Removal of mechanical buttons from smartphones: This allows the manufacturers to operate more in the space saved after the buttons are replaced. This space can be used to install bigger batteries.
  • The space saved by the elimination of the buttons will help in designs required for the new wave of 5G phones.
  • The sensors give the ability to open and lock your car door or any other doors for that matter, without going through the annoying handles.
  • Touch interface or the slider in wearable devices like watches, earbuds or AR/VR glasses.
  • The touch interface will across home will not only make it easier for people but also more fun.
  • One-handed selfie operation with the multi-functional touch user interface. Easier touch means more selfies.

Is UltraSense A Pioneer?

It is imperative to point out that UltraSense isn’t the only one trying to develop this kind of tech. There is Redux which was acquired by Google last January, who used similar wave-based solutions for smart display and tablets. Illinois-based Tanvas Haptics is also developing an ultrasonic platform which sends sound waves to a screen to deliver feedback by changing and controlling the friction.

As for startups, Toposens and Sentons have products which combine arrays of ultrasonic touch sensors with strain-gauge meters which is a direct competition for UltraSense.

Outlook

The TouchPoint product has a wide variety of applications and is equally impressive. The elimination of handle locks on door and locks on cars will make it easily accessible as well as more fun. But, with UltraSense collaborating with different phone companies to introduce a touch-sensitive power button which they claim will be used in smartphones to eliminate the mechanical buttons and will be out in the late 2020s.

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