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Sensors Expo 2019: Neonode Holographic Touch Control Stops Designers in Their Tracks

At Sensors Expo 2019 at the end of June, there were a lot of sensor products, technologies, kits, reference designs and ideas on how to use them. There was also some good advice on what to look for in a sensor from STMicroelectronics. Right now, I’d like to talk about what I think was the best demonstration at the show: Neonode’s zForce AIRTM sensor.

It was part of a demonstration that projected a “touch” interface into 3D space (Figure 1). The thing is, you didn’t actually touch anything. When you reached out and touched the control button projected at a point in space, the zForce AIR sensor detected that touch and the system responded accordingly. It was altogether very disconcerting but fun at the same time.

Figure 1: Neonode’s demo projected a holographic image from a display to a point in space about 5 inches above the surface of the demo box. Viewed from the front, it looks like a regular control panel interface (left); viewed horizontally, the control panel disappears (right). (Image source: TechWire International)

However, Neonode isn’t just about fun, it’s also for serious applications where it’s not good to have “disconcerted” users, so the company has a plan to address that. Before going further, let’s take a look at the demo in more detail, and then describe zForce AIR and its role.

How’d they do that?

As it’s a demo, the best way to describe it is using the video below.

Video: See how Neonode’s zForce AIR combines with special plastic from Asukanet to project a control interface into 3D space. (Video source: TechWire International)

However, here’s a quick summary. The demo comprised a regular display inside a box. The display was angled at 45˚ toward the top of the box. The top of the box was covered with a special plastic sheet from Neonode’s partner Asukanet (Tokyo, Japan). In the plastic are many mirrors that flipped the image another 45˚ and converged the image from the display to a specific point in space, about 8 inches above the box. This is odd, to say the least, as when you look at it from the side, along the horizontal plane, there is nothing there (Figure 2, right).

Knowing the coordinates of each pixel on the image, the demo then used the zForce AIR to detect when a user touched a point in space directly corresponding to a control button.

The zForce AIR detects objects by emitting an array of infrared beams 2 millimeters (mm) wide. (Figure 2). Receivers pick up the reflected light from the object and the position is sent to the host by Neonode’s controller using I2C or a human interface device (HID) profile over USB. Proprietary software downloaded to the host correlates the finger position to the projected pixel positions.

Figure 2: Neonode’s zForce AIR uses reflected IR light to detect a finger or any object. (Image source: Neonode Inc.)

There’s a lot more to it, of course, and it may be the subject of a future technical feature by Digi-Key, but the end result is a sensor that can sense any object, determine its size, its pressure on a surface, its depth (in 3D), its velocity, and its proximity. This can be used to track an object, an interesting application.

As it’s optical, my first question was about blocked optical signals in a dusty environment and the effects of ambient lighting. According to Bengt Edlund, VP of Distribution and Partner Sales at Neonode (Stockholm, Sweden), it compensates for dust and other particulate matter, as well as ambient lighting, in software. He added that being optical, it’s immune to electrical interference and strong RF signals. As for power consumption, a length of sensor measuring approximately 8 inches long consumes 146 milliwatts (mW) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: A strip of zForce AIR measuring approximately 8 inches is embedded into the demo box at an angle to detect objects in a space approximately 8 inches above the screen. This strip consumes 146 mW. (Image source: TechWire International)

The technology is an obvious alternative to capacitive touchscreens. As shown in the demo, it makes for interesting combinations with the right partners. For example, Neonode is working closely with Ultrahaptics, a provider of soundwave-based haptic feedback, with automobiles as a target market. Being able to “feel” the touch of a control button is a lot less disconcerting in general, but for a driver, it’s critical as they don’t have to take their eyes off the road to make sure they’ve touched the appropriate button.

In medical applications, not having to touch a surface at all is extremely exciting as it greatly reduces the possibility of pathogen transmission.

Conclusion

Saying the Neonode was the best demo at Sensors Expo 2019 is of course highly subjective, and there were plenty of others that deserve close examination for utility. However, Neonode’s was the only one that made me, a jaded show traveler, stop dead in my tracks and go “Huh, how does that work?” And I wasn’t the only one. While the technology is not new, it clearly has enormous potential in industrial, consumer, automotive, and medical applications, with the right partners.

About this author

Image of Patrick Mannion After starting in engineering, Patrick Mannion has been analyzing the electronics industry for over 25 years, with a focus on informed editorial to help engineers manage risk, contain costs, and optimize designs. Formerly brand director and vice president of UBM Tech's electronics group, he now provides custom content services.
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