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December 26, 2006
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StacoSwitch tries to trick your sense of touch

Tactile illusion is the basis of StacoSwitch's new touch screen, where users can feel feedback as images 'push back.'

By Colin Stewart
Orange County Register

We've all seen optical illusions — vases that change into faces, dot patterns that seem to spin.

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But how about a tactile illusion?

When you experience one, your brain is tricked by your sense of touch, not by your eyes. It's like when the brain interprets menthol-flavored candy as cool, even though it's at room temperature.

At StacoSwitch in Costa Mesa, tactile illusions are being used in devices with a serious business purpose.

Its flat video panels display images of buttons that, when touched, give users the feeling of pushing real-world buttons.

"It's sensory perception deception," says Tim Reilly, the company's senior product manager.

The deception is simple. When a finger activates the screen, the transparent screen coverphysically shifts left, then right, which the brain interprets as a button moving in and out.

The company's Tactile Feedback Touchscreen is designed for airplane cockpits, casino kiosks and airport self-service ticket machines — noisy environments where a simple beep isn't enough.

StacoSwitch has been making rugged switches for the military and other demanding customers since it was founded in 1958. But as those customers have moved toward more sophisticated electronics, the switch maker had to move with them.

So it is now making rugged computer keyboards, mouse pointers, and joysticks, developing other new product lines and reaching out to civilian customers.

New products include battery-powered LED flares to mark traffic accident scenes without flames, keyboard holders that attach to the steering wheel so police officers can write up reports in their parked cruisers, and LED headlamps for police and firefighters.

NEW PRODUCTS

Like many companies that are seeing their marketplace changing before their eyes, StacoSwitch is looking for new ways to use its expertise.

For example, as an outgrowth of its work with heavy-duty circuitry and switches illuminated with LEDs, it is developing household LED lights that are more energy-efficient and longer-lived than compact fluorescent bulbs — and that work with a household dimmer switch. The company has built working models and filed a patent application, but needs to bring down the price by using off-the-shelf components, says Kevin Judd, vice president of sales and marketing.

"We're aiming for a price that's $5 more than compact fluorescent bulbs," Judd says. "Then the marketplace would be willing to accept them."

The Tactile Feedback Touchscreen is part of the same strategy of finding new market niches for its expertise about switches and circuitry.

IMMERSION STRATEGY

The basic technology was developed by Immersion Corp. of San Jose, which makes video-game joysticks that vibrate and surgical training devices that mimic the feel of cutting into the human body.

Immersion has partnered with a variety of corporations to incorporate its touch-screens in their gear, including 3M Touch Systems, for video gambling machines; SMK, Methode Electronics and Volkswagen, for touch-screens in autos; and StacoSwitch, for kiosks.

Two years ago the board of directors saw the technology's potential and approved $2 million to prepare it for market – a healthy outlay for a company with $10 million to $12 million in annual sales.

StacoSwitch figured that its existing aerospace customers would be receptive to the tactile touch-screen but would take years to place an order. So, while StacoSwitch engineers prepared demonstration systems for Airbus and Boeing, the company hired consultants from Forrester Research to seek alternatives.

'LOW-HANGING FRUIT'

In the short run, they recommended entering the electronic-kiosk market, which seemed like "low-hanging fruit," Judd says.

But that market wasn't as ripe for the picking as StacoSwitch hoped. For example, airlines' ticketing kiosks in noisy airports would be a good spot for tactile touch-screens, but the airlines are too hard up these days to buy them.

Then in September Immersion licensed its technology to Kiosk Information Systems, a private company with thousands of kiosks in operation worldwide. With no deals for touch-screen kiosks, StacoSwitch was suddenly competing against the nation's largest maker of self-service terminals, with customers such as Pepsi, McDonald's, FedEx, Disney and Wal-Mart.

"It's one of the largest and most experienced companies in the kiosk and self-service sector," says Lawrence Dvorchik, a self-service terminal expert who is general manager of the KioskCom trade show.

Undeterred, StacoSwitch is trying to sway customers by emphasizing that it was first to market with a full tactile touch-screen system.

At the same time, Judd is seeking to build a business case for tactile touch-screens. To do that, he needs data showing whether they're more efficient or more enjoyable than standard models. To find out, StacoSwitch is monitoring two demonstration models — an information kiosk at a Las Vegas casino and a food-ordering kiosk at a theme park in Southern California.

It's also preparing demonstration models for next month's National Retail Federation show in New York and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Dvorchik says StacoSwitch has a good chance of success, despite the tough competition. "They seem to have a lot of the right elements – the right technology, the right manufacturing, the right people, and they really focus on the customer."



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