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Making technology more touchy-feely, this week in Waltham

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 24, 2010 07:25 AM

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Touch is the topic of the week in Waltham, starting tomorrow, when the Haptics Symposium comes to town.

It's mainly an academic event, but among the exhibitors will be Woburn-based SensAble Technologies, one of the pioneers of incorporating the sense of touch into computing. Their Phantom peripheral, pictured at right, is both an input and output device: when you hold the stylus at the end, you can do things like practice a surgical procedure or sculpt a block of clay into a prototype cell phone. Your actions are reflected in three-dimensional models on your screen, and you also feel the effect your actions are having on the object, whether it's skin you're slicing or clay. (The device in the picture is the Omni model of the Phantom, which sells for about $1000; more sophisticated Phantoms go up to $80,000.)

The company spun out of MIT in 1993, making it pretty ancient for a venture-backed start-up. Earlier this month, SensAble announced it had raised another $8 million from investors including North Bridge Venture Partners in Waltham.

The company's Phantoms (about 8,000 have been sold so far) are used by designers at companies like Mattel, Hasbro, Converse, and Gillette to shape new prototypes, but chief technology officer David Chen tells me the two biggest growth areas are medical and dental applications: surgeons can use it to practice a procedure on a 3-D model of your anatomy before they actually get you on the table, and dental labs are using the technology to "help them design crowns, bridges, and dentures," Chen says. York University in Toronto has also written software so that the Phantom can be used with a stick attached to test the skills of hockey players before the NHL draft.

The new round of funding will help the company build momentum in the dental industry, says Chen, adding that "our other business lines are profitable." The company has 45 employees, and VP of sales and marketing Joan Lockhart says the 2010 plan is for "very aggressive growth." None of the founders is still involved with the company. (I should disclose that I did some consulting for SensAble, helping improve its Web site, back in 1997 and 1998 when I was not working full-time as a journo.)

SensAble will be highlighting its QuickHaptics API at the Haptics Symposium this week, aimed at making it easier for software developers to build touch-enabled applications.  

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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