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I'm Every Touchpad: Sensel Morph Does Anything You Want Done, Baby

An iPad-sized touchpad that senses pressure can track faint brush strokes or a hard drumbeat. Naturally.

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With a touch area the size of a small tablet, the Sensel Morph is a pressure-reading touchpad so sensitive it can detect anything from the wispy touch of a paintbrush to the pounding of a drumstick. And it's more than a drawing tablet or drumpad: with its API, you can program the Morph to function as your own custom touch-based peripheral.

At its core, the Morph is a highly accurate pressure-sensitive pad with over 20,000 sensor points embedded throughout an iPad-sized area. You can press anything into the pad, from multiple fingers to a paintbrush, and the Morph will sense where you pressed and how hard. (Traditional drawing tablets actually register the pressure in their styluses.) But the Morph's versatility lies in its overlays—a type of touchpad skins—that allow it to be used as a QWERTY keyboard or a DJ's mixer. Since the tech is in the pad, not the overlays, there's a wide variety of possibilities for touch input.

Still, artists and musicians will almost certainly be the initial market, thinks the Sensel team, as both are disciplines that are already familiar with the utility pressure-based inputs.

It's easy to be skeptical of the Morph's claims, but when I played with the Morph during a demo Sensel set up, the touchpad's inputs were instantaneous. The Sensel team set up a visualizer on one of the pads, and when I moved my fingers around the pad, they showed up on screen as pillars that grew as I pressed harder. The Sensel team slipped the QWERTY keyboard overlay on the pad and I was typing away with no delay or error. When they placed the piano keyboard overlay on, I tapped out notes and chords that rang deeper with the pressure I exerted. The Sensel team gave me a standard paintbrush you could buy at any art store and the art overlay sensed how hard or soft my strokes were. The overlays I saw performed exactly as advertised.

The basic Morph package on its Kickstarter page includes a pad and a choice of three overlays for $250. The seven total overlays include three musical pads—piano, general DJ layout, and percussion—along with QWERTY keyboard, graphic art, game controller, and a developer overlay. An eighth overlay will be chosen by popular vote among Morph's Kickstarter backers, a first step in Sensel's attempt to build a vibrant and active community for the Morph.

Building your own custom overlay is pretty cheap, too. The Sensel team introduced the Morph to a DJ and he excitedly sketched out his own overlay design, which the Sensel team 3-D printed up for about $15-$20 in plastic and delivered it to him within a day. Since the functionality is all in the programming and not the overlays, users can simply tape a piece of paper to the Morph and draw on buttons where they'd programmed its functionality in, which Sensel saw teams do while prototyping their custom overlays at a hackathon.

"We didn't have a transparent developer overlay at the last hackathon, and didn't tell people what to do with the Morph, but a couple groups just had notebook paper that they taped to the top of the Morph and had hand-drawn a lot of interfaces that they were using," says Zagarra. "One team developed a plugin for open-source 3-D modeling app called Blender to manipulate objects in 3-D using Morph, letting them push and pull surfaces and points in 3-D space. They actually created some gestures I'd never seen before in touch sensors."

The Morph's API will let developers access raw touch input data from the pad. But the Morph will also have a far more casual programming mode, a web-based drag-and-drop interface non-coders can use to build out custom functionality and overlays.

When Rosenberg left Amazon to finish his Ph.D in 2013, he tinkered with legacy touchpad tech and made a trio of innovations that increased the Morph pad’s accuracy and drove down price per unit. The first was manufacturing the Morph's logic board in a traditional PCB process normally used to make circuitry and motherboards, which lets the Morph pack in a high density of sensors with better consistency. The second was developing a new type of force-sensing material that the team optimized to track super-light touches. The third was a new compression method to quickly send higher-resolution data from pad to computer, accurately tracking where the pad is touched and with how much pressure.

There have been large pressure-sensitive touchpads before, but since they’ve been built to fill niche demand, they’re expensive. The Morph’s $250 price point makes it the first accurate pressure touchpad aimed at the consumer market.

"I can buy a trackpad-size force sensor array for $15,000, which is crazy expensive. The electronics are huge and super bulky, so they’re only used for industrial or medical applications," says Sensel cofounder and CTO Aaron Zarraga. "The Morph is the first technology that captures high performance and high resolution but which is actually affordable to consumers."

The Sensel team knows that the community will drive the platform’s innovation. They have a Github-style repository will let users swap programming setups.

"One way to describe it is that we’re building the first app store for physical interfaces. We want to make it really easy for people to make and design their own, to upgrade and improve them, and to share them with other users," says Rosenberg. "I’m kind of really excited to see what people come up with. There’s no reason a piano has to work a certain way or keyboard has to look a certain way—there has just not been an easy way for people to modify peripherals. When people have an easy way to design their own interfaces, we will see much faster improve and evolution of these types of physical interfaces."