Singapore’s first Thiel Fellow kickstarts Haptix, a device that could replace the mouse

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Darren has ambitious plans for Haptix.

Nineteen-year-old Singaporean Darren Lim flirted with science and innovation while studying in Chengdu, China. Together with fellow high schooler Lai Xue, they participated in a number of Intel Science Fairs, which turned his dalliance into a full-blown love affair.

As he became more interested in making gadgets rather than using them, he contemplated launching a startup. Towards the end of his National Service, a mandatory, two-year military stint for Singaporean males, he discussed ideas with Xue, a technical whiz who became an Intel engineer at age 18.

Darren felt the time was right to leave his “comfort zone”.

After working his way into startup accelerator The Iron Yard in South Carolina, he earned a place in this year’s 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship. The prestigious program provides mentorship and USD 100,000 in cash from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Foundation to pursue cutting-edge science and technology.

In a field dominated by American youths, Darren stands out as one of a few Asians born in Asia, and the only Fellow from Singapore. He’s now based in San-Francisco, but shuttles frequently to Shanghai to iron out manufacturing.

The team of five is throwing its hat into a hot area in the tech startup scene: 3D motion control. The company is called Ractiv, and its first product is Haptix, a device that converts ordinary surfaces into a multitouch user interface.

They believe 3D motion control is one of the keys that will unlock ubiquitous computing.

“Motion sensing and voice control could be a way to reduce distractions while using smartphones in cars,” said Darren, “they won’t replace the keyboard and mouse entirely, but they will become much more prominent.”

Truth be told, Haptix is similar to many projects out there. There’s the famous Sixth Sense prototype by MIT that went wild on TED. Researchers at Purdue University are using the Kinect to turn surfaces into touchscreens. A company called Ubi Interactive is trying to make this a commercial reality.

But none are mainstream yet.

Haptix brings a different approach to cracking the egg, and has today launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to broadcast its intentions.

Here’s the tersest — though imprecise — way to describe Haptix: It’s Leap Motion without the gorilla arm problem. Or at least that’s how it’s being positioned by the company.

Both devices share many similarities on first impressions. They allow multi-touch gestures in three-dimensional space, are priced at under USD 80,  involve using visual feedback to replace haptics, and even look the same: Silver metallic bodies with black ‘windows’ to the sensors.

I suspect that Haptix would soon have the same amount of hype as Leap Motion.

In fact, that excitement, fueled by a well-made promo video, was what compelled me to buy the Leap Motion in the first place. I own a touchscreen laptop, so I understand the problems that gorilla arms pose. I was hoping for a little tech magic to make my problems disappear.

But I was disappointed. In short, the Leap Motion works, but it still requires you to wave your arms in the air, despite what the company says. It’s exercise I don’t need.

While finger movements with rested arms are theoretically possible, I haven’t figured out how to do that on my device. Its performance also varies under different lighting conditions — the less light the better.

But through a couple of design elements, the Haptix has potential to be what Leap Motion isn’t: A true replacement for the hardy, long-serving mouse, and perhaps the missing element that allows tablets to truly replace laptops.

Leap Motion can't do this.

Leap Motion can’t do this.

Haptix has a clip that can be mounted on top of the laptop screen, which means that its sensors are facing downwards instead of upwards.

The device is specifically designed to emulate the laptop stance: Arms rested on the table, fingers tapping away at the keyboard. The keyboard surface is the touchscreen.

This means that the Haptix can be used while you are looking down at the surface, making it potentially ideal for artists and engineers who want to capture pen or brush strokes.

Will lighting affect the Haptix? Darren says no. The gadget relies on patent-pending algorithms in computer vision and image processing instead of infra-red or thresholding. Theoretically, this makes the device usable in any lighting condition.

Available on Windows and Ubuntu at first pass, the Haptix has a modest fundraising goal: USD 100,000. With its affordable pricing (from as low as USD 59), the product has a decent shot of surpassing its mark.

Meeting consumer’s expectations, however, is a loftier goal that is much harder to achieve.

Haptix looks good on paper, but I’ll reserve my judgment until I try it out.


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