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Powermat founder sets sights on turning hands into keyboards

[JERUSALEM] With estimates suggesting the global market for wearable tech will surpass US$30 billion by 2020, significant prizes await those who can crack "the next big thing."

Ran Poliakine, best known for founding Powermat Technologies Inc to eliminate the world's dependence on electrical cables, is setting his sights on improving communication with wireless devices by transforming human hands into keyboards that type anywhere, and on anything.

The new endeavor, Tap Systems, came out of stealth mode Wednesday with a foam strap that slips onto the hand almost like a brass knuckle. It translates 31 finger taps into letters and numbers, which are transmitted by Bluetooth to mobile devices like phones and tablets.

With an accuracy level of "99 per cent," according to Mr Poliakine, the strap is an alternative to voice-based systems such as Apple Inc's Siri or gesture technologies, and eliminates the need to carry a keyboard.

"We've invented a new smart textile that when you place it on your hand you can turn any surface into a keyboard," Mr Poliakine said in an interview. "It's important because when you have a smartwatch, or iPad or any other device that you need to activate or interact with on the go, right now you need to sit down and have a keyboard, or to touch on a screen."

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Mr Poliakine founded Tap with Sabrina Kemeny, a former Nasa engineer and co-inventor of an image sensor technology used in mobile phones; and David Schick, an engineer whose previous company, Schick Technologies Inc, sold in 2005 to Sirona Dental Systems in a US$928 million reverse takeover.

Financed by its founders, Tap stands to benefit from Mr Poliakine's previous experience with Powermat.

Cordless charging, 10 years after the company founding, is far from ubiquitous, despite the likes of Samsung Electronics Co, Ikea Group and Starbucks Corp embedding the technology in its latest products or stores.

"Lesson number one is: go after a very large market that is going to be even bigger. When we started Powermat it was clear that the market will come but was not there," said Mr Poliakine.

"Wireless charging was like a magic kind of thing, a concept. With Tap the need is absolutely there, and is going to be greater and greater, from wearable devices all the way to virtual reality and augmented reality, all of those devices in urgent need for a sophisticated input method."

MarketsandMarkets most recent forecast for the global wearables industry was US$31.3 billion by 2020.

The strap won't stop at typing text. Software developers will be invited to create applications for use with the platform.

Mr Poliakine foresees a future where music could be composed or played by tapping on a knee instead of piano keys. He hopes to see technology global leaders such as Microsoft Corp eventually incorporate Tap technology into products like HoloLens, the company's virtual reality headset that a recent CNET review said was difficult to control with voice commands and gross movements.

Tap intends to offer the strap early on to the blind or visually impaired. "This is a transformative technology, where they can be as facile with mobile as a sighted person," Mr Schick said. The market for devices that assist the disabled and elderly could reach US$19.6 billion by 2019, according to Transparency Market Research.

Other companies, in Israel and abroad, are targeting that same market. OrCam, a company created by one of the founders of Mobileye NV, makes a device that fits on eyeglasses to help the visually impaired cross a street or read.

Imogen Heap, a musician and entrepreneur based in the UK, co-developed a set of gloves that can help physically challenged musicians create and perform.

As the need for a better input method grows, so will the possibility that Tap will end up competing with some of the world's largest companies. "It is quite possible that Google, Facebook and Apple are working on a solution," Mr Schick said.

Tap's possible drawback may be that users need to learn to "tap", an obstacle the company has tried to overcome with a learning game that uses ditties and music to improve memory retention for finger combinations. Mr Poliakine said it takes most people no more than an hour to adjust.

Mr Schick said the development continues in-house and the strap will evolve as technology advances. In particular, he envisions future designs of the strap to eventually be worn on the wrist rather than around the hand.

The company plans several months of consumer testing in Silicon Valley before shipping. "The underlying assumption is we need to create a community," Mr Schick said.

"We believe this technology can become a core language or protocol."


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