Multitouch and the tablet were made for each other, but there are times when you wish your hands were transparent so you could see what's hidden beneath them. Waving digits in mid-air would appear to offer some hope of liberating your hands from the touchscreen, and certainly wins points for coolness, but hitting a precise area of nothing to activate an icon or confirm an action may well seem like way too much effort when you could just reach for a trusty mouse. The Haptix system from Ractiv combines elements of both to make any flat surface multitouch, freeing your hands from the touchscreen and making the mouse obsolete.
Tapping away on a tablet's virtual keyboard can be a pretty clumsy affair when your device is propped up on a stand for comfortable viewing, but laying it flat on the table can quite literally be a pain in the neck. Reaching out for multitouch on an All-in-One desktop computer or laptop just sends the pain elsewhere. The Ractiv team, headed by 2013 Thiel Fellow Darren Lim from Singapore and Lai Xue from China, says that the advanced computer vision and image processing algorithms of the Haptix system were developed to address these issues.
Haptix has the look of a webcam, and indeed packs two 640 x 360 resolution CMOS image sensors chosen to achieve a high frame rate, with lenses that currently have a 120° field of view (though the developers are hoping to increase that to 150° with better lenses). It's been programmed to track 10 objects, with unique IDs assigned to each so that different functions can be activated by different fingers. The system also includes infrared LEDs, allowing Haptix to work during the day and through the night, if required.
The little box registers touch points on any flat surface, while also adding a layer of 3D sensing in the area above so that users can see where fingers are in relation to the screen before tapping to confirm an action. If you're thinking Leap Motion here, Haptix is a little different.
"Even though Haptix may seem similar to Leap Motion (both are 3D sensing), there are several fundamental differences," says Lim. "Unlike Leap Motion, Haptix doesn't rely on infrared, but only employs infrared when illumination is low. This addresses limitations in Leap, as Haptix can be used in all lighting conditions and on reflective surfaces. 3D sensing and gestures alone aren't enough to replace the mouse. That's why we've made it a must to complement 3D sensing with multitouch, allowing Haptix to be a mouse-killer. Using Leap requires your hands to be held in the air, whereas Haptix allows you to rest your hands on a surface."
"It can be used as a 3D sensor for gesture control," he adds. "We're starting with multitouch because it's what people can actually use right now, but we'll definitely develop 3D motion sensing applications over time."
Clipping Haptix onto the top of a laptop display and plugging the cable into a spare USB port, for example, will allow a user to pinch to zoom, swipe and scroll across the surface of the keyboard to manipulate what's on the screen. Think of it as having a virtual touchscreen interface or huge invisible trackpad floating just above the keys. Once typing begins, however, the system auto disables.
The clamp mechanism also folds flat for placement on a desk. Lim told us that the first prototype didn't have any padding on the inner surfaces of the clips, which led to small scratches appearing on his laptop during testing. Subsequent version have therefore included rubber padding. The front clip is reported to be credit card thin, so users may be able to close a laptop without needing to remove the Haptix first.
Haptix is plug and play, and a built-in microcontroller takes the processing strain away from whatever device it's connected to. That device will currently need to run Windows or Ubuntu, but moves are afoot to invade Android and Mac territories in the near future. "We have always loved the idea of using Haptix with smart TVs and iMacs, so we'll figure out whatever we need to do to make it happen," reveals Lim. "We'll certainly have it ready by launch."
To raise funds for the final push toward production, Ractiv has turned to Kickstarter. Though early prototypes were 3D-printed, production models will have an anodized aluminum housing, and come in a little smaller than the current 3 x 3 x 8 cm (1.2 x 1.2 x 3.1 in) pre-market unit.
Haptix is only being offered with cabled connectivity. "We did consider wireless, but the extra cost and bulk didn't seem to be worth it for consumers (especially something so large on the top of the laptop)," explains Lim. "However, we do have something special planned to make it wireless, which we'll announce further down the road."
All of the early bird specials have already been taken, so backers will now need to pledge at least US$65 to be among the first to receive a Haptix unit. A successful funding campaign should see the first Haptix units being shipped out in February 2014.
The pitch video below shows the Haptix system in action.