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Will Sensel’s Shape-Shifting Trackpad Surpass Apple Force Touch?

When Apple announced Force Touch trackpad earlier this year – a piece of tech that detects how hard or soft a user presses their fingers – people were intrigued, to say the least. But now, a company called Sensel has taken things a few steps further with their pressure-sensitive, multi-use trackpad, called the “Morph.” After raising $225,000 of a $60,000 goal on Kickstarter in just a few days, the gadget has creatives around the world on the edge of their seats. Because right out of the gate, it’s looking like Sensel just kicked Apple’s ass.

My What Big TrackPad You Have

For starters, this thing is huge. It’s roughly the size of an iPad Mini, and packs an impressive 20,000 embedded sensors, aligned in Sensel’s patented Pressure Grid. The grid gives the Morph a high dynamic range of force sensitivity, meaning the sensors capture high-resolution images of any pressure applied to the device. “Highly tuned algorithms then take these pressure images and turn them into a list of touch locations, each with their own force and shape information,” explains the Sensel team.

What this means is you can use more than just your fingers (or a designated stylus) on it: anything from a hard-hitting drumstick to a delicate paintbrush will be detected by the grid.

“It took several innovations and a whole lot of elbow grease. Our mission from the start was to address the mismatch between the expressive capabilities of our hands and the restrictive interfaces of today’s devices,” explains the team. “We want to enable new ways of interaction with digital devices and allow Morph users to unleash new possibilities in the worlds of music, art, gaming (cue Buzz Lightyear), and beyond!”

Mystique Mode

Where the Morph really shines is in its ability to shape-shift from one thing into another (hence the name). This is done through what Sensel calls “overlays,” Each overlay is essentially a cover that sits on top of the Morph, transforming it from a smooth trackpad into a new device, say, a piano keyboard that can play a booming crescendo or soothing lullaby – all depending on how hard you press the keys. You could even bend notes on a digital guitar simply by rocking your finger across an overlay’s “strings.”

“These  ‘physical apps’ are made of a thin, flexible layer that you can place over the device to provide a visual ‘map’ and tactile feedback for each mode’s unique functionality,” says Sensel. “Imagine having your art tablet, music production controller, QWERTY keyboard, video game controller (and anything else your mind can fathom) all in one device.”


And because the pressure-tech is in the pad, not the cover, you can make your own. “We wanted this to be hackable… And not just for people with coding knowledge.” You could 3D-print an overlay, or go the simple route and draw one on scratch paper — it all works, and according to Sensel, it’s easy to do.

“One of the most exciting things [for us] – maybe even more exciting than the Morph itself – is the community we plan to build,” they say. “Users will not only be able to create new, custom interfaces for themselves using simple drag-and-drop, but they will be able to easily share these interfaces with the entire community of Sensel Morph owners and talk to one another about what they’re creating with the Morph.”

All About the Benjamins

So, what will this wonder-device cost? Amazingly, not much. The Morph will sell for $249, which includes a few of Sensel’s pre-fabricated overlays (not bad when you consider some drawing pads cost thousands of dollars). “I can buy a trackpad-size force sensor array for $15,000, which is crazy expensive,” Sensel co-founder and chief technical officer Aaron Zarraga told FastCoDesign. “The electronics are huge and super bulky, so they’re only used for industrial or medical applications. The Morph is the first technology that captures high performance and high resolution but which is actually affordable to consumers.”

The ball’s in your court, Apple. One thing’s for sure: this is one dog fight we’re excited about. Want to learn more about the Morph? Head over to the Kickstarter page.


IMAGES: Sensel

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