Sensel Morph input device combines force sensitivity and template flexibility

By slapping on a rubbery overlay, this force-sensitive surface can become a QWERTY keyboard, drum pad, media control deck, and more.

Alexa, are keyboards going extinct? Wishful thinking, maybe, but according to a recent survey there's broad support for voice technology over tactile interfaces.

In October, I wrote about force-sensitive touch surface technology from Sentons. The company, though, is not the only one that has developed such tech. In 2015, Sunnyvale-based Sensel debuted its approach. While Sentons uses ultrasound to detect placement of touch, Sensel uses an array of sensing nodes embedded in a film. Sentons claims that its tech has advantages when it comes to sensing through thick objects, while Sensel claims advantages when it comes to reacting to different input objects (such as paint brushes and gloved hands), as well as supporting multitouch force and working underwater.

Sensel also differs from Sentons in that it has created a real product that shows off the versatility of its technology: The Sensel Morph. Unadorned, the Morph looks much like a mouse pad or small graphics tablet and can connect to a range of desktop and mobile platforms via USB or Bluetooth. However, unlike those devices designed to support a specific input device, the Morph can underpin a wide range of input templates -- rubbery, three-dimensional overlays that magnetically align to its surface. These range from a computer keyboard to a music keyboard and include options such as a video-editing deck overlay and a drum pad that you can hit with actual drumsticks. Each overlay includes raised surfaces for key touch areas. For example, the keys on the QWERTY keyboard are higher than the trackpad, just as they would be on a laptop keyboard; the same is true for the black keys versus the white keys on the piano overlay.

morph-overlays.jpg

The Morph and its 

Sensel

While crude, by comparison, the Morph is the closest thing the industry has produced to a tactile input equivalent to the touchscreen. The overlays vary in how well they can substitute for a dedicated device. The keys on the QWERTY keyboard, for example, are a bit small and demand a bit of a learning curve, but are far superior to glass keyboards such as those on the Lenovo Yoga Book. (Speaking of which, it would be interesting to see a 360-degree convertible notebook outfitted with a Morph-like lower deck that optimized thinness when fully rotated.)

Other than the key spacing, it reminds me of the typing experience on the Logitech Keys-To-Go. The piano-style keyboard overlay accommodates two octaves but with narrower keys. It works well as a simple MIDI controller but isn't something you'd want to use for learning to play music or play live. Nothing is stopping Sensel from making a more comfortable single octave-controller, though, and the company says that two Morphs can be used side-by-side to increase the range. The video-editing tool is effective for working with the precise movements needed for such features. And there's also a gamepad overlay, although most gamers would probably want less mushy buttons.

Sensel indicates a touch activation by lighting a section of a horizontal LED strip at the top of the pad; an improvement for future versions would include an array of LEDs on the Morph surface. This could help in a range of applications, such as lighting the keys of the QWERTY keyboard, lighting up piano-style keys for music instruction like fellow crowdfunded alumnus, the Roli Lumi, or lighting up buttons on an editing deck to show which functions are in use. But that might also make the Morph more expensive. The device sells for $249 with overlays going for $35 and up ($469 if you want the complete set). Senel also makes stereolithography files available for people to create their own overlays, although it notes that the quality will not be as high as the mass-produced ones.

The Morph may not be the only input device you would ever want, but it would be the one you'd want if you could only have one. It's a particularly good travel companion for a range of creative tasks, especially when paired with a tablet or smartphone when traveling light. That may not be enough to merit much of Sensel's attention, though, if the B2B sales of its core force-sensing technology, an input component in other devices such as laptops, cars, and clothing, takes off.

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