Interview with The Sensel Morph, The first pressure-sensitive, multi-touch input device
Ilya Rosenberg and I [Aaron Zarraga] started Sensel back in December of 2013. We met while working together at Amazon’s Lab126 (Amazon’s hardware-focused subsidiary) and quickly became friends. While there, we worked together in a concept group where our task was to turn ideas/concepts into functional prototypes. In a few occasions, we worked with production teams to turn some of these prototypes into products. Ilya left Amazon in the summer of 2013 to finish his PhD, and started thinking about new ways to build a touch sensor. (Ilya has been developing various force-sensing/touch technologies for the past decade and has even started two previous companies in the field). After many prototypes, he invented a new way to build a high-resolution, multi-touch, pressure-sensitive touch technology. The solution he came up with was the first of its kind. It was not only an extremely high-performance technology, but it was also highly manufacturable (as it used all standard manufacturing processes). I saw this early prototype in October of 2013 and knew right away that I wanted to join him and help him commercialize this new technology (we now call it Pressure Grid).
We knew that we didn’t want to start a pure technology company, since that is an extremely difficult strategy to pursue as a small startup. Trying to license a technology is very difficult and you end up betting the company on whether you can land a big deal or not. Since we both had experience productizing new concepts/technologies, we decided to start by building our own product. Enter the Sensel Morph. The idea for the Morph came from the realization that there are so many physical interfaces that are fixed and single-purpose (keyboards, mice, midi controllers, art digitizers). These interfaces really don’t make sense in the context of the rest of the computing ecosystem. Our laptops/tablets are upgradeable and customizable – nothing is ever fixed or single-purpose. Tactile interfaces are also far from being entirely replaced by touchscreens, as the modern computer/tablet is nearly always paired with a keyboard or some other physical interface. The Morph is the first product of its kind and it’s directly addressing this mismatch by finally bringing physical interfaces up to par with the rest of technology.
2. What are some applications of Sensel?
The applications for our Pressure Grid technology are truly endless. We are excited about many consumer electronics applications, but we also think our technology can have impact in robotics, medical, industrial, and even automotive. For the Morph, we decided to focus on addressing the needs of creatives: artists, musicians, makers and developers. For artists and musicians, they already understand the value of having a device that can detect new levels of nuance and expression. Artists see the value of being able to use their own tools (paintbrushes, pens, pencils) for the first time in the digital world. Musicians are excited to design new instruments/interfaces where they can take advantage of not only pressure/force but also position (like using a finger-rocking gesture to pitch-bend a note). We’re hoping that makers and developers use the Morph’s API to push the bounds of what’s possible and lead the way in-terms of developing new interactions and use cases.
3. Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign. Did anything surprise you? Any anecdotes to share in creating and running the Kickstarter campaign?
We chose to launch the Morph on Kickstarter because we’re excited about engaging the active community that is involved in backing Kickstarter campaigns. With the Morph, we have developed many use cases that work out of the box, but we’re even more excited to see what new interfaces people come up with. We were definitely surprised by how quickly we reached our goal (in just three hours)! The Kickstarter community has been fantastic and we’re excited to have a group of enthusiastic backers supporting our project.
When creating the campaign, we tried to think of every question a person might have about our product. We even had a long list of FAQs ready to go live with the Kickstarter, but we still weren’t prepared for the influx of questions that funneled in when we hit the live button. We spent the first few days of the campaign continuously answering questions via Kickstarter, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. We were pretty overwhelmed, but we learned an incredible amount from these questions, and we’ve used that feedback to improve how we explain the product. These questions also helped us understand which aspects of the product are the most important to backers.
4. How did you create the video for your Kickstarter campaign?
Ilya and I are both technical, and we knew we needed to bring in external design expertise to really build out a consumer-facing company. Fortunately, we were able to partner with the world-renowned design firm, Frog Design, through their Venture Design program. They helped us turn our early Morph prototypes into the product you see in the Kickstarter. They also worked with us on design refinement, messaging, branding, and filmed our Kickstarter video.
5. Can you share tips for those considering crowdfunding their project?
- Prepare as much as you can. Even though we weren’t completely ready for the post-launch pace of questions/inquiries, we were much better off because we took a lot of time to prepare ahead of time.
- Talk to potential customers ahead of time and get as much feedback as you can. We talked to various artists, musicians, and developers well ahead of launch, and their feedback went directly into the product you see today. We’ve tried to treat every interaction with a potential customer is an opportunity to improve the product.
6. What’s next for Sensel?
After the Kickstarter campaign ends, we will be 100% focused on delivering the Morph to backers on time. We are aware that Kickstarter campaigns have a tendency to deliver late, and we do not want to be one of these campaigns.