Google looks to be gearing up for a major push to incorporate more haptics – electronically generated tactile sensations – into its hardware, inking a multi-year agreement with “touch feedback” specialist Immersion Corporation last week, days after winning regulatory approval for its touchless tech control project Soli.
The Immersion deal, announced January 3, 2019 provides Google with a license to Immersion’s patent portfolio (the San Jose-based haptics specialist has 3,000 issued or pending patents; its technology is already at work in over three billion devices around the world, including gaming controllers). Deal terms have not been released.
The agreement comes just three days after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided a legal waiver for Google’s “Project Soli”, which uses minuscule radar to create virtual buttons, sliders and other interactions in thin air. (Google owner Alphabet’s Advanced Technology and Projects group has built a custom sensor/radar/antenna array into a 8mm x 10mm solid state chip operating in the 60-GHz ISM band and made an SDK available.)
Google Haptics Push: $0.11 Royalty Rate?
The two companies have history, some of it rocky: Immersion won a patent infringement lawsuit against Motorola (then owned by Google) in 2012, with a settlement that ultimately provided for a “per unit” royalty rate of $0.11 for each Motorola device sold that incorporates Immersion’s “basic haptics”.
(Immersion is also locked in a lawsuit with Samsung over the latter’s alleged patent infringement in its Android phones. The two failed to come to agreement [pdf] during mediation on November 27 last year and, as Seeking Alpha’s Paolo Gorgo notes, the jury selection for the trial is scheduled for May 2019.)
While Google’s smartphone range is limited, Project Soli’s ability to capture motion in a three-dimensional space will require a degree of haptics to make it usable: consumers will need to “feel” the virtual buttons and interactions Soli facilitates. We anticipate a fresh hardware push by Google: a “virtual” phone may not be far off.
Haptics has been one of the themes of this week’s CES conference in Las Vegas: startup Nanoport was among those making a major push, announcing its modular haptics developer kit publicly. The Silicon Valley R&D lab’s kit is one of the first on the market that allows developers to customise and mechanically fine-tune haptic feel.
Other major actors have also been at work. As earlier reported by Computer Business Review, Microsoft Research Labs’ haptics controller research is also moving forward fast. One innovation last year allows users with a hand-held haptic controller to feel the texture of virtual objects under their fingertips, as well as grasp them – with the resistance of the object realistically rendered.
Market analysts expect the global haptics market to triple in size by 2025 from its 2017 value of an estimated $6.3 billion.