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Start-up banking on keyless keyboard

Tue., July 10, 2007

This spring, business partners Jim Schlosser and Cody Peterson quit their jobs at tech companies and set out to develop a keyboard without keys.

The men, founders of Spokane-based Pacinian LLC, envision changing how people input information to computers, ranging from desktop PCs to laptops and smart phones, through an ultra-thin, sealed “smart surface” for typing.

The partners claim their HapticTouch keyboard, still being prototyped, will provide auditory and tactile cues that allow people to type rapidly without needing to push keys downward. Instead, touch sensors would signal special mechanisms under a flat typing surface to move laterally, fooling the brain into sensing vertical movement.

“It’s like a smart keyboard,” said Peterson, 32, chief technical officer.

Their concept would translate into keyboards thinner than today’s thinnest models, impervious to spilled sodas or broken keys, and easily backlit, Pacinian executives said. Backlighting, a difficult technique using standard keyboard technology, would allow the keyboard to be reconfigurable and could be useful for military applications, said Schlosser, 37, company CEO.John Overby, founder of Coeur d’Alene-based keyboard company Advanced Input Devices, said Pacinian’s concept is the first new idea in keyboards in more than two decades.

“It’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever, frankly, seen come along because of the variety of things you might be able to do with it,” said Overby, who works with Pacinian as client services director of the Spokane-based tech business incubator, Sirti. “Most past innovations have been strictly on cost.”

Pacinian is negotiating with Spokane investment group WIN Partners LLC to help fund its next prototype. John Pariseau, WIN Partners general manager, said he likes the partners’ “spunk,” and they have “an innovative approach to a pretty big problem.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort talking to these guys over the last couple of years,” Pariseau said. “Just not really seriously until they quit their day jobs.”

Pacinian boasts its keyboard would be priced comparably to traditional ones. At 2 to 3 millimeters thick, the HapticTouch device also could be set up for other languages, and parts of it could be configured into touch pads like those on laptops, the company said.Because the “keys” would actively respond to touch, the device would be more ergonomic than current technologies, Peterson said.

The partners have raised about $227,000 from friends and family and created one rough prototype to demonstrate their notion. They expect this month to finish the next model, the equivalent of one “key,” and they have applied for a patent.

Schlosser and Peterson estimate they will need an additional $2 million to reach production. Company plans call for project launch late next year, with large-scale manufacturing likely occurring overseas. Several large manufacturers of mobile computing devices have expressed interest in the technology, Schlosser said.

While the partners aren’t aware of much direct competition, they said, Pacinian will vie against companies integrating existing technology.

Schlosser and Peterson met while working at Advanced Input Systems, the current iteration of Overby’s former Advanced Input Devices. They drafted their ideas after watching customers settle for keyboards with more limited features. They now temporarily work out of a sparse office at the Sirti Technology Center, employing two contractors for electrical and mechanical design.

“We’ve had such a long time to think about this and dream about it and go through it in your brain, that now that we come in here every day, it’s like clockwork for us,” Schlosser said. “We know exactly what to do. And it’s all coming together.”

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