Startup seeks to replace mobile phone buttons with sensors

Startup seeks to replace mobile phone buttons with sensors
Jess Lee, CEO of Sentons Inc, demonstrates the company’s virtual jog wheel feature based on a custom sensor on a test device in San Francisco. (Reuters)

Sentons, a startup led by chip industry veterans, has begun marketing technology that aims to do away with gadget buttons and is working with two smartphone makers, according to a Reuters story.

Headed by Jess Lee, an engineer who sold his previous company to Apple Inc., Sentons announced an ultrasonic sensor system that uses ultrasonic sound to detect touches, presses and swipes on various materials such as the metal edges around a smartphone, the story said. The technology is already being used by Taiwan’s Asus and its partner Tencent Holdings in a phone was released in China this summer.

Sentons’ technology revolves around a custom chip that sends out the sound waves and contains a processor and algorithms for understanding various gestures, according to the story.

In the Asus phone, the sensors allow gamers to hold the phone horizontally and tap “Air Triggers” along its top edge as virtual buttons with their index fingers while their thumbs tap the screen.

“Touch screens are great, but (phone makers) hadn’t been able to figure out how to add interactivity to the sides,” Lee was quoted as telling Reuters in an interview.

“With the thinner and thinner form factors, perhaps even all glass or with funky metallic edges that are really, really thin, there’s no space for buttons.”

According to the story, Sentons is also developing a virtual jog wheel which enables users to scroll through apps on phones that have become too large to hold with one hand. The company is also reportedly developing a virtual shutter button to focus a phone’s camera, similar to the way a physical shutter button works on dedicated digital cameras.