In the 1970s and 1980s three local firms – General Instrument and Key Tronic, both in Spokane, and Coeur d’Alene’s Advanced Input Devices – were the worldwide leaders in the design and manufacture of computer and business keyboards.
The business community, riffing on the Silicon Valley concept, decided Spokane and North Idaho should be called “Keyboard Valley.”
Thirty years later, most of the production of keyboards has shifted to Asia. But one North Idaho tech startup has taken on the challenge of creating the next groundbreaking change in keyboard design.
That firm, Pacinian Corp., was launched in 2007. During its first three years it focused primarily on designing breakthrough keyboards and touchscreens, using an “active” touch system in which the contact surface responded in a way that could be customized depending on the user, and which used less energy than existing devices.
But last year Pacinian decided to shift its focus to its second technology, a “passive” surface for keyboards and other products that it calls ThinTouch.
Where the active first-generation surface used tiny electrical impulses, the ThinTouch uses no power at all, company CEO Jim Schlosser said.
The big advantage, he noted, is that the user will touch the ThinTouch keyboard and the key will feel like it’s moving more than it actually does.
For now, Pacinian is talking with a host of companies looking to use ThinTouch in both keyboards and appliances, keypads and devices, including vehicle consoles.
A year ago, Schlosser and Cody Peterson of Pacinian showcased their products at the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual tech extravaganza in Las Vegas. Tech reps who looked at the Pacinian products said they looked and felt great. But what they really wanted to know was “How much thinner can you make them?” said Peterson, the firm’s chief technology officer.
Pacinian decided to jump full-bore into thin design, and the timing appears perfect, said John Overby, who founded Advanced Input in the ’70s and has advised Pacinian on its business plans.
Overby is now CEO at Spokane Valley tech firm Flyback Energy.
At this week’s CES in Vegas, several major tech firms will introduce their own versions of ultra-slim notebooks. Many will use the term Ultrabook, a trademarked hardware designation developed by Intel.
Using the design standards announced last year by Intel, those manufacturers are already producing laptops that are no larger than a typical magazine, said Becky Emmert, an Intel spokeswoman based in the Portland area.
In part the Ultrabook is the Windows-based response to the slim and powerful Macbook Air, introduced by Apple in 2009. So far, neither the Macbook Air nor any of the first versions of Ultrabooks are using keyboards designed by Pacinian.
The prices for Ultrabooks will vary, starting as low as $700 and going up above $1,000. But that could change, as Pacinian is looking at announcing new deals with keyboard manufacturers later this year.
Peterson said Pacinian has paid close attention to the design standards Intel has announced for producers of Ultrabooks. The one dimension Intel requires is that a true Ultrabook keyboard be no thicker than 3.5 millimeters.
The need for thin means that as keyboards get smaller, the overall unit is smaller. Or the size saved by the keyboard can be devoted to a slightly larger battery, Peterson said.
“Our ThinTouch keyboard is 2.5 millimeters. We can get it down to 2 millimeters,” Peterson said.
That’s the size of two stacked credit cards, he noted.
How it works
While the Macbook Air is cool, it still uses a traditional keyboard design. That design relies on moving parts, called scissors and domes. They allow the key to go up and down and create a sense of “snap” or response when the key is moved.
If the keys break, the entire keyboard usually goes into a repair shop. On a laptop, that means the whole unit has to be sent off to replace a part that was made usually for less than $2.
The ThinTouch system developed by Pacinian doesn’t have those moving parts. It’s sturdier and smarter and more energy efficient, said Schlosser and Peterson.
The ThinTouch system uses no electricity, and relies on a passive form of “haptics” – a term for the tactile response when a person presses a knob, button or surface.
Using patented processes, the ThinTouch creates the perception that the pad key has moved up and down, said Peterson. The pieces don’t break because the keys have no scissors or supporting parts.
“The trick is in fooling the nerve receptors to believe the key has moved up and down more than it has,” Peterson said.
The name Pacinian, in fact, comes from the name for a nerve receptor in the human finger.
The details of how the ThinTouch works is something Schlosser and Peterson don’t care to divulge.
“The haptics work we did originally taught us how humans perceive touch and how your fingers tell your brain what is happening when a key ‘moves,’ ” Peterson said. “So we applied what we learned to make ThinTouch.”
The big picture
Pacinian employs seven people and has raised around $3 million in investment funds, plus another undisclosed amount connected to developing prototypes for unidentified customers, Schlosser said.
The possible advantages for Pacinian are huge.
There are fewer than 10 keyboard makers left of any size. “None of them has been able to innovate at the keyboard … it’s an area ripe for evolution,” Peterson said.
About 200 million notebooks are made each year. That could grow by 15 to 20 percent in four years, analysts say.
“The ThinTouch is particularly well-positioned for the emerging thin and light Ultrabook segment, expected to grow from a few percent to 40 to 60 percent (of the notebook market) over three years,” said Mike Levin, the firm’s vice president of business development.
The drive toward reliable, cost-effective production is what undercut the former companies that made up Keyboard Valley, and sent keyboard manufacturing overseas.
Pacinian hopes to break through that mindset, offering affordable and innovative technology, Peterson said.
If that happens, then what?
“That will be a very big industry shift and would be really big for us,” said Schlosser. Added Peterson: “We’re already looking into how to staff up to meet the demand we are seeing.”
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