Earlier this year, Apple opened up some interesting new ways of controlling the MacBook by giving it a trackpad that could detect how hard or soft you were pressing. Now a new company, Sensel, is trying to take that idea a few steps further. It's launching a Kickstarter campaign today for what's essentially a giant version of the MacBook's Force Touch trackpad. But what makes it even more interesting is that Sensel's trackpad doesn't have to look like a flat slab — it can also transform into other input devices.
An iPad mini-sized, pressure-sensitive, shape-shifting trackpad
Sensel's trackpad is called the Morph. It's similar in size to an iPad mini and is supposed to have 20,000 pressure sensors embedded throughout it. In a demo, the Morph was able to detect even the slightest pressure from my fingers; it even picked up the bristles of a paintbrush gliding across it. That input all appeared immediately when the Morph was wired to a Mac or PC; there was a very slight delay when connected to an iPad over Bluetooth.
Where the Morph really gets interesting is with what Sensel is calling "overlays." Overlays are thin covers that sit on top of the Morph's trackpad, transforming it from a flat surface into a more recognizable device: it could become a computer keyboard, a DJ controller, a piano keyboard, or a gamepad, for instance. Each cover can still tap into the full pressure sensitivity of the pad beneath it, so you can turn it into a piano that plays louder as you strike its keys harder, or a keyboard that allows you to rest your fingers on it. (Morph's keyboard overlay, in fact, is surprisingly easy to use.)
Sensel plans to make about 10 overlays to start, a few of which will ship with every Morph. But it's also interested in seeing what users of the Morph will do with it. Sensel wants to see people create their own overlays using 3D printing; Morph owners could even sketch out an overlay on paper and use that — it'll work just fine. Sensel is making an app that should allow people without coding knowledge to map areas of their custom overlays to specific commands, so people can create controllers specific to their needs.
Morph's advantage is giving you something real to touch
That could make the Morph a powerful tool for artists, gamers, or just technical power users. Although, there is reason to question how long the Morph will have an advantage over what you can buy from Apple: what are the chances that an iPad won't have a Force Touch display within the next year or so? Sensel readily admits that it sees that as the future, but it argues there's still a big reason to want the Morph. Even with pressure sensitivity, a tablet is just a flat piece of glass — there's no tactile feedback.
Sensel is launching a Kickstarter campaign for the Morph beginning today. It's looking for $60,000, with the devices selling for $249 each. The campaign is supposed to be more about preorders than bankrolling; "The device itself is pretty much ready to go," says Aaron Zarraga, Sensel's co-founder and chief technical officer. Sensel now plans to work on refining its overlays and figuring out what else the Morph's future users want to see it turn into.
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