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A look at the haptic feedback technology from Redux ST, that Google acquired

  • Google acquired Cambridge-based startup Redux ST which
    developed advanced haptic technology.
  • An in-person demo of the company’s technology made me
    feel as if I was handling physical buttons.
  • Redux ST also developed technology that played sound
    using a smartphone’s screen as a speaker.

LONDON — Google has quietly acquired a small British startup that
has developed advanced haptic feedback technology which makes
flat glass screens feel like real, physical buttons, and also
plays music through the screen itself.

Bloomberg first reported that
Redux ST had been acquired on January 11
, although it seems that
the deal took place in August 2017
.

Redux ST’s technology is an interesting fit for Google, and could
be used in its Pixel smartphones and ChromeBook laptops, or even
in its self-driving cars.

I met with Redux ST at the Mobile World Congress technology
conference in Barcelona in early 2017, before Google acquired the
startup. I sat on a bed in a cramped, hot, hotel room with three
Redux ST employees who showed me two devices they had developed.

The main device was a large touchscreen on a shelf. It looked
like an Android tablet but much bulkier and with large bezels at
the sides. This device showcased Redux ST’s advanced
haptics. 


Redux ST
A smaller version of the
device I used.


YouTube/Publitek


Redux ST’s technology made it feel like I was actually pressing
buttons, rotating dials, and moving puzzle pieces around. The
screen remained flat, but the vibration behind it tricked my
fingers into feeling three-dimensional buttons that weren’t
really there.

It was like a more impressive version of the Home button
technology Apple used on iPhone (before the iPhone X). There was
a circle in the bezel that you applied pressure on to close apps,
but it didn’t depress like an actual button. Instead, Apple used
vibrations to fool you into thinking you pressed a button.

Redux ST’s device had a series of demos that walked through the
ways it could use haptic feedback. One demonstration had me
turning a volume dial, and I felt a kind of “ticking” feeling as
I rotated the wheel.


Redux ST
YouTube/Publitek

Another had me pressing buttons on a virtual keypad. If I closed
my eyes, I would have felt like I was actually pressing buttons
that had a physical presence.


Redux ST
YouTube/Publitek

One demo tasked me with assembling a puzzle from pieces displayed
on the screen. The pieces made a clicking vibration feeling as I
slotted them in, which helped me find the right place for them.

And perhaps the most intriguing section of the demo was based
around how the technology could be used in vehicles. I could
press buttons and drag sliders more easily when they felt
physical. That makes sense for a screen in a car — anything that
stops the driver having to take their eyes off the road is a good
thing.


Redux ST
YouTube/Redux
Laboratories


The second device I was shown was a dummy smartphone. It had a
screen and a metal case, but was essentially just a speaker
mocked up to look like a phone.

The interesting thing about that device was that there were no
speaker grilles or holes for sound to come out of. Instead, the
sound came through the screen itself.

Redux ST employees said that they could just emit audio from the
top half of the phone, for example, so that you wouldn’t have
audio coming out near your mouth whilst on a call.

Google could use Redux’s tech to make its products more immersive

So what could Google be doing with that technology?

Perhaps it just wanted one of Redux ST’s patents on playing audio
through a screen. It’s a neat trick with no discernible drop in
audio quality. And cutting out speaker grilles makes it easier to
waterproof a smartphone’s internal components.

Buying up Redux ST’s patents would also allow Google to proceed
with its own development of haptic feedback without any worries
of competing with a smaller company that had already patented the
technology. Google
settled a lawsuit over haptic feedback patent infringement in
Android phones in 2012
, and it won’t be keen to get into a
similar fight again.

Or maybe Google has ambitious plans to embed haptic feedback
within its Chromebook laptops and Pixel phones.

In 2015 Google announced that it had been experimenting on a new
kind of sensor. Project Soli used radar technology to track the
movement of people’s fingers. The announcement video even gave
the example of a user turning a virtual dial, just like Redux did
in its demonstration.

Finally, the haptic feedback technology would work well in one of
Google’s self-driving cars. Anything likely to improve safety
will make regulators look more kindly on its cars.

Sure, for most of the time people will be sitting back and not
driving, but there’s always the chance that people in the
vehicles could have to take over operations and drive it
themselves if the software fails.





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