This startup brings precision controls for gamers to the humble keyboard • TechCrunch
You wouldn’t drive a car or fly a plane if the only controls available to you were on/off switches for left and right or up and down, and yet that’s pretty much what gamers are stuck with when controlling their virtual avatars with their keyboards. British startup Peratech wants to change that with a new series of “force feedback” keyboards that are starting to appear in Lenovo laptops. I spoke with the company’s CEO to learn more.
“We just launched a force-sensing keyboard. It’s not just the keys; it’s a user experience. We’ve created a user interface that is both an application and a game bar widget, so that new users can have a simplicity, and serious gamers get advanced controls to capture the mechanics of using the keyboard,” explains Jon Stark, CEO of Peratech. “With our keyboards, you have a tactile feedback loop. The keyboard knows how hard you press and you can change that pressure profile. Say you want really progressive acceleration first because you tend to hit the gas too hard when going around corners: The profile can be configured, and influencers can configure and deliver those profiles to people, creating engagement with other followers. It goes beyond just delivering power and delivering a great user experience: I’m talking about community-based user experience content that drives engagement and simplicity.”
The force feedback technology can be found in Lenovo’s Legion 7i and 7 gaming notebook PCs, which were launched during the summer. To me, Lenovo isn’t necessarily the first brand that comes to mind when I think of “gaming laptops,” but as a company, Peratech had a connection they could work to make these keyboards appear in the real world.
“We’ve had a long relationship with Lenovo, and they really wanted to do something with Legion to elevate it and innovate. It’s not just for gaming; as we expand into a full notebook, other opportunities emerged. It works very good with video editing, for example,” Stark says, using scrubbing through a video timeline as an example. “Imagine when you’re scrubbing slower, you might want to zoom in at the same time. Imagine being able to do that with just one button and control the speed with finger. And when you move faster and press harder, it zooms out. We create controls where expert users would be very good with two hands, and jump back and forth to a mouse. We take the cognitive load of doing all these activities and put them in the hands of users where they can really focus on the content.”
The team hopes that the keyboard will become another tool in the player’s tool belt for increased immersion and enjoyment when playing.
“IIf you have a steering wheel that is basically for F1 or Forza, you have all the controls of an F1 car, but you also have all the complexity of an F1. It’s immersive. But if you then go to play Call of Duty or GTA or Witcher, you have to disconnect all that and grab a joystick. And if you go from flying to walking or driving a car to walking — it’s kind of impossible, and something like a steering wheel makes you kind of a one-game player, Stark points out. “The other thing to note is that you can’t use these controllers on an airplane. You cannot use them on a bus. You can’t use them in a coffee shop. And so for those who are buying a laptop, it makes a really big difference.”
The portable keyboards have 400 or so levels of pressure, which the company claims gives users a great amount of fine control. The keyboards use a thin film layer that sits within the mechanical key structure. Between 25 and 300 microns thick, the company claims the technology can be built into pretty much any keyboard out there.
“Whar we do is that we take the signal [from the keyboard] and we run it through our power control processor. Here we condition the signal so that it is very easy for the computer electronics to use. We also use Windows-native drivers. So it’s not like your PC feels like it’s being hacked or you need this specialty API. We use keyboard, joystick, mouse, trackpad, joystick and other drivers to be able to provide that experience through a keyboard: We separate input from the way you actually use an on/off switch on a keyboard, says Stark. “So we offer a better keyboard experience.”
The company’s technology can be described as software-enabled hardware, or hardware-enabled software, depending on the level of integration it has with a keyboard manufacturer. Peratech told me a story about how it was able to design a redesign for an existing keyboard design in CAD in just four days.
“There are a couple of different ones [microcontroller] chips that you can use. “Depending on the architecture of the computer, you can use the built-in controller on the motherboard, and we have applications of both with Lenovo,” explains Stark. “You have to have an ADC that captures the data, and then we have some processing that needs to happen, where we process the signal. And that’s what gives you all the dynamic range you’re looking for.”
The company’s keyboard line is a pivot from technology originally developed for smartphones, designed to add force feedback to smartphone screens. Of course, the company hopes that the technology will catch on and appear in more applications in the near future; the team was tight-lipped about exactly where and when we might see it appear next, but it hinted that there could be automotive and smart home applications in the pipeline. For now, Lenovo’s laptops are the easiest place to try it out—look for “Force Sensor Technology” to see if Peratech’s tech lives in its guts somewhere.