Boréas has introduced what it claims is the first button-replacement solution that combines force sensing, gesture detection, and localized haptics.
The sense of touch conveys important information about internal and external conditions. Receptors can perceive temperature, pressure, friction, or stretch. But what do we feel when we tap, swipe, scroll, and fling on the glass screen of our smartphone? Hardly anything. Haptics can bring back the touch sensory information.
Boréas Technologies (Bromont, Canada) has introduced what it claims is the first button-replacement solution that combines force sensing, gesture detection, and localized haptics. Using off-the-shelf piezo actuators and Boréas’ proprietary CapDrive drivers, the NexusTouch piezoelectric sensor platform allows designers to expand touch-based user interfaces on the sides of smartphones and gaming phones so that the exact button triggers the exact haptic feedback in real time, the company said.
“In the past, our offer was really just about sensing and localizing haptics so that we could replicate a button and enable OEMs to go with buttonless phones,” Simon Chaput, Boréas’ founder and CEO, told EE Times. “Now, we are able to add gesture detection to do something very similar to ultrasonic sensors.”
While force sensing perceives the level of force the user is applying on the device, gesture detection senses gestures like swipes, taps, and clicks. Localized piezoelectric haptics is independent of the smartphone’s haptic motor. While a haptic motor vibrates the whole smartphone, localized haptics only vibrates the area under the pressing finger. “It feels right, in the sense that if you push with your thumb, you expect to feel something on your thumb, not anywhere else in your hand,” said Chaput. The feeling is then more natural.
NexusTouch has been developed using Boréas’ patented CapDrive technology, a scalable high-voltage piezoelectric driver architecture that takes advantage of the piezoelectric material. This approach compares with the more traditional haptic actuators: eccentric rotating mass (ERM) motor and linear resonant actuator (LRA). The CapDrive technology was developed at Harvard University as part of a project to improve the performance of piezoelectric actuators. Haptics soon became the main focus.
Boréas claims its technology can go in very low power mode where it consumes near zero power. The piezoelectric material per se is power efficient, but Chaput said the company’s driver architecture, compared to its competitors, consumes “about 10 times less power for the same kind of actuators”.
NexusTouch reference design will be available in the fall of 2021. So why announce it today? “Because of the current situation where it’s hard to travel to OEMs, we prefer to announce it a little earlier so that we can engage in conversations and start working with them,” said Chaput.
The NexusTouch platform, which comprises piezoelectric actuators and Boréas’ chip, is connected to the smartphone SoC to operate. When asked about the chip more specifically, Chaput said, “I have been working on our roadmap, and we will probably make a specific announcement later in the fall. It’s based on new silicon.”
With the NexusTouch platform, Boréas aims to provide smartphone users with an enhanced digital single-lens reflex (digital SLR or DSLR) camera and gaming controller experience. In the selfie or picture mode, for instance, the button would feel like a camera to confer a more engaging user experience. Users can swipe to zoom in or zoom out on the side of the phone. Users can also press halfway on the button to autofocus and press the rest of the way to capture the picture, “a little bit like we had on older cameras.”
For gaming, Boréas claims NexusTouch offers new possibilities to interact with the side of the phone and provides different haptic feelings at the same time to feel immersed in the virtual environment.
The technology is compatible with seamless design, which means that the buttons are completely hidden.
“The technology is applicable to any surface that piezo actuators would make smarter,” said Chaput. From a market size and time-to-market perspective, Boréas said it will concentrate on smartphones first, but “as we grow and as the market grows, we may have resources to go to other applications.”
“One of the most promising advancements in smartphones is the rise of touch-based gesture interfaces, which let users ‘swipe’ to look around a panoramic scene or tap virtual ‘trigger points’ on the phone to engage in gameplay—all without the use of mechanical switches or buttons,” commented James Hayward, principal analyst at IDTechEx. “While adding immeasurably to the phone’s user interface, existing gesture-sensing solutions are still limited by a lack of haptic feedback. Suppliers who can offer both capabilities in a single device will enable manufacturers to achieve greater product differentiation.”
During an interview last year, Chaput said Boréas was at a point where “we have a good solution that makes it viable on the market.” The next step consisted in “working with our customers, because most customers have expertise into actuating ERM and LRA, and the piezo actuator is quite different.”
The global haptic component market will be worth $4.8 billion by 2030, according to IDTechEx.
This article was originally published on EE Times.
Anne-Françoise Pelé is editor-in-chief of eetimes.eu and EE Times Europe.