South Korean startup offers 3D Touch for Android

Armed with a bagful of patents and the experience of adding his Aulu Z technology to a Huawei device, HiDeep CEO Brian Ko expects 3D Touch to arrive on many smartphones this year.

Apple wowed the world with its own 3D Touch, alternatively called Force Touch, on its iPhone 6S last year that allows users to configure commands based on the "force" of their touches on the screen.

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(Image: Supplied)

But it was Chinese handset giant Huawei that stole the title of the world's first by launching its own Mate S, armed with the same technology, a week before. Unbeknownst to many, the technology was actually provided by a small South Korean startup, called HiDeep, which developed it on its own.

"We started developing the technology around May 2011, so we really took almost four years in the making," said HiDeep CEO Brian Ko, in an interview with ZDNet. "When the Apple Watch came out, I knew they would put in 3D Touch in their next phone. It's natural that something like Force Touch will eventually come to the UX, if you really think about it."

Like a true Korean, Ko wanted 3D Touch to be out in the market as fast as possible, and preferably before Apple, so that people will not consider his company a "me-too". HiDeep started meeting various vendors to pitch the technology throughout 2014 and 2015. And it was Huawei that showed the strongest interest.

"Top management from Huawei came weekly, starting in February. They overhauled the whole design for the Mate S to accommodate 3D Touch," said Ko. "I asked them, 'Can you do it before Apple?' And they said yes."

The Chinese tech giant showed great initiative. The Mate S was completed within seven months and the firm indeed clinched the title of "world's first".

At the entrance of HiDeep's office at Pangyo Techno Valley -- the still-in-the-making South Korean version of Silicon Valley -- there is a placard that reads: "Be the First". The company has 60 employees, but it has some big investors such as Lip-Bu Tan, CEO of Walden International, the famous global venture capital firm in Silicon Valley; and Skylake Investments in South Korea.

"For me, it is meaningless to develop something, without being the first," said Ko. "This is more true in the technology arena. If you are not the first, you just become a follower."

"We did with 60 people what Apple did with 100,000," said Ko, proudly. "We want to be the best company in the world when it comes to making natural interfaces for smartphones."

2016: Year of the 3D Touch?

Ko is a local legend of sorts in the Korean venture scene -- he founded a company called Integrant Technologies Inc., which developed the world's first digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) tuner for handsets. He sold the company in 2006 to US's Analog Devices for $160 million -- four times its then revenue -- an unbeaten record for a startup sales price locally.

He got the inspiration to develop the DMB tuner because of his focus on the "core" of things.

"Many people back then thought the core of mobile TV was the reception technology. But I thought different. For me it was the content. That was where my inspiration came from. Technology should be viewed not as the goal, but the tool to achieve a goal."

It was the same for smartphones.

"When I first saw the iPhone in 2009 [the iPhone arrived in South Korea that year], it was a total, complete shock. I played with it every way possible for a year, and my conclusion, though now common, was that the core was the UX," said Ko. The inspiration for a 3D Touch after the multi-touch came like that, he said.

HiDeep's 3D Touch is called Aulu Z. Aulu means "embracing all" in Korean, and the Z was put at the back to symbolize the z-axis used to represent three dimensional objects. The technology measures the distance between the glass surface of the touch screen and a thin, film-type sensor embedded within it. Making it a film-type sensor allows the technology to be easily and widely adopted by any touch-screen device.

With Mobile World Congress on the horizon, Android heavyweights Samsung and LG are expected to launch their flagship phones. Chinese companies may also have some surprise announcement in the pipeline for the event. And 3D Touch may be a big part of it.

Ko believes that 80 percent of all Chinese high-end phones released this year will have some sort of 3D Touch, and expects his company's revenue to increase by tenfold.

"Within the first half of this year, every touch technology firm needs to say: "We also have 3D Touch". Because if they don't, they will lose their smartphone clients," he said.

"I have filed for a hundred patents for Aulu Z, on sensors and production methods. You'll see. The 3D Touch war in smartphones is brewing for 2016," he added.

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