Spotlight on Kickstarter: Haptix

Project Name: Haptix

Category: Technology

Goal: $100,000 (£64,000)

Currently Funded: $45,000 (£29,000)

Deadline for Pledging: 13 September 2013

Haptix Touch has just announced a new input device that turns any surface into a 3D multi-touch interface. The device, called the Haptix, closely resembles the Leap Motion gesture controller in terms of appearance and underlying technology. Whereas Leap is placed on a surface and points up, though, Haptix points downwards at whatever surface your hands are currently resting on. This means that you can comfortably use Haptix for extended periods – and it should also mean that input is a lot less finicky than the Leap, which has been broadly panned since its public release last month (see here for our full review of the Leap).

The Haptix controller is being developed as a Kickstarter project by Darren Lim and Lai Xue, the former being a Thiel fellow and the latter being the “youngest engineer at Intel” back in 2011. Early birds can get a Haptix for $59 plus $20 shipping to the UK (£50 in total), while the US retail price will be $70 (£45) – which is ten bucks less than the Leap. The funding goal is $100,000 (£64,000), which shouldn’t be too hard to reach as long as people aren’t too disaffected by the lacklustre launch of Leap.

Technologically speaking, as far as we can tell, Haptix is very similar to Leap. As you can see in the two images above and below – the Haptix is above, the Leap below – both use a brace of standard digital cameras to provide high resolution finger tracking and depth perception. In the case of the Haptix, there are two 640 x 360 CMOS sensors. The video feeds from both cameras are then transferred to your PC via USB, and some complex stereo computer vision algorithms create an accurate 3D model of the world.

Assuming the cameras are of high enough quality (two 640 x 360 should be fine for Haptix’s proposed use cases), these algorithms are where the magic really occurs: If they do their job, Haptix should be able to easily detect solid surfaces (such as a table or laptop keyboard), and when your fingers touch those surfaces (denoting a tap or click).

If turning your keyboard or coffee table into a touchpad wasn’t cool enough, you can also perform gestures in the space between the Haptix and the surface – just like the Leap. In the video which you can watch on the Kickstarter page, you’ll see that the Haptix happily tracks your finger as you move it over a keyboard – and then registers a tap/click when your finger touches the keyboard. One still image also shows the Haptix tracking five fingers above a keyboard.

While the Haptix sounds incredibly similar to the Leap (and it is), co-founder Darren Lim said that there are some small but significant differences. While the Leap’s cameras seem to only use infrared light (provided by three infrared LEDs inside the unit), the Haptix can use ambient light and infrared. Ambient light enables the capturing of much more detail, which is a boon for accuracy, but it requires “a few tricks” for the computer vision algorithm to handle that much data in real time.

Lim stopped short of explaining what their secret sauce actually is (it’s being patented at the moment), but it is this new algorithm that can handle ambient light that makes the Haptix more accurate and flexible than the Leap. According to Lim, the Leap cannot be used in the same manner as the Haptix.

For now, Haptix is only compatible with Windows, but Android and OS X are in the works. Lim tells us that, despite the fancy software, CPU utilisation is low – low enough that a smartphone version is viable, anyway. Curiously, Haptix also “integrates with your system out of the box,” basically allowing you to use it as an input device from the get-go; Leap, as you may know, possesses no such integration, instead forcing you to download Leap-enabled apps.

While there has been a glut of gesture-based interfaces and controllers in recent months, Haptix is probably the most interesting. For £50 – at the current early bird price, anyway – you could use your keyboard as a touchpad, or control your home cinema PC by placing your hand on the coffee table. Turning any surface into a multi-touch interface, while still retaining the ability to perform gestures – but not forcing you to wave your hands in the air – is extremely compelling. For me, being able to control a mouse pointer without taking my hands off my desktop keyboard would be one of the most exciting interface advancements ever.