Sandpoint startup TransluSense shines at CES with glass keyboard
Glass keyboard maker expects to hire up to 130 employeesJanuary 31st, 2013
Sandpoint startup TransluSense LLC enjoyed a "ridiculously successful" product debut with its glass keyboard devices earlier this month at the big International Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, says company executive David Rogers.
TransluSense, which already had planned to hire production workers to begin assembling and shipping its Luminae line of keyboards and track pads this spring, now plans to escalate production exponentially during its first year in light of its exposure at CES, says Rogers, TransluSense's vice president of operations.
The company's Luminae light-driven keyboard won first place in the prominent annual technology trade show's prestigious Last Gadget Standing contest, which also included entries from the likes of global electronics giants Samsung Group, Lenovo Group Ltd., and HTC Corp., he says.
The Luminae keyboard body is a clear, contoured sheet of glass. When it's powered up, the keys appear as if suspended in air and illuminated in colored light, like something straight from science fiction.
"What gets people excited is its futuristic look," Rogers says.
Virtual keys are etched into removable transparent overlays, called skins, that can be customized for individual applications.
"The functionality is you can customize the keyboard with a thin clear film that has your layout," Rogers says.
The devices have no moving parts. Three optical sensors detect the user's manual contact with the glass and translate it into input. TransluSense's technology turns the glass into a multitouch surface, meaning it can detect gestures such as pinching and stretching to control zoom commands in addition to conventional inputs of letters and numbers, he says.
The keyboard also can give customizable auditory responses, such as clicks and beeps, to simulate the sounds of keystrokes, or it can flicker in a different color of light to indicate it has registered the user's input.
The Luminae products are in final stages of development with an expected production date in late March or early April, says Jason Giddings, president and CEO of TransluSense.
The company currently has just five employees and is based in a 16,000-square-foot facility on the Coldwater Creek campus on the north edge of Sandpoint, where it plans to assemble input devices from globally sourced parts.
Giddings says the company will have 15 to 30 employees and produce 5,000 to 10,000 units a month when production starts. He projects that by the end of its first year of production, it will ramp up to 130 employees with an annual payroll of $2.6 million and a production capacity of 100,000 units a month.
Giddings also says he expects the company will be profitable within its first production year.
TransluSense also plans to release software with its products that will enable users to design their own keyboard layouts, he says.
"We'll build a library so people with similar interests can share layouts," Giddings says.
The product development has moved quickly since Giddings first floated the concept for light-driven input devices on the Kickstarter crowdsourcing website in early 2012 while living in Portland, Ore.
"It was just me working out of my house," says Giddings, a former Army helicopter pilot.
Supporters of the concept chipped in nearly three times his initial financing goal of $50,000 to develop a prototype. The Kickstarter campaign also captured the attention of Swiss tech company Software Solutions & Technologies AG.
"SST invited me to visit and discuss options for a partnership there," he says.
Literally meeting on a glacier in the Swiss Alps, Giddings and an SST executive inked a deal for venture capital. In exchange for half ownership of TransluSense, SST put up $3 million in working capital, and a $4 million line of credit.
That put Giddings in a position to look for a place to set up a development and production facilitya search that ended in Sandpoint, where he and the TransluSense development team moved in July.
"Once we knew we were going to have an assembly facility that was going to tie us down, my wife and I wanted to start it in a place we want to live," he says.
He says Sandpoint city employees and officials helped TransluSense obtain Idaho grants and tax incentives for starting a new business, hiring employees, and training.
Jeremy Grimm, Sandpoint city planner and community development director, says he first heard of TransluSense about a year ago when Giddings called to ask what Sandpoint had to offer the startup company.
After setting up a meeting with Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie and two council members to demonstrate the city's business support, Grimm says he helped negotiate a complex deal to land TransluSense.
As community development director, Grimm also manages the Bonner Business Center, the city's business incubator located in northwest Sandpoint, near the Sandpoint Airport. One tenant there, Lead-Lok Inc., a biomedical device manufacturer had grown to the point that it was beyond the incubation stage, he says.
Grimm says he showed Leak-Lok's space to Giddings thinking that Lead-Lok was about ready to relocate. Instead of moving out of the center, though, the company wanted to remain at its location and expand there.
Grimm says he helped Lead-Lok obtain an Idaho grant to assist with the expansion, and the city then directed the equivalent of Lead-Lok's former rent subsidy to TransluSense at the Coldwater Creek site.
"We're tickled pink to have Jason and his team recognize the quality of life here and that the community of Sandpoint offers them services, amenities and a workforce that competes with anyone out there," Grimm says.
As the TransluSense development team settled into the Sandpoint facility and produced working prototypes, Giddings and Rogers secured a booth at CES, which was held Jan. 8-11, putting Luminae products on the international stage.
The Luminae was one of about 100 products entered in the Last Gadget Standing competition, which is one of the highlights of the event, Rogers says.
In the contest, a panel of judges made up of technology journalists selected 10 finalists from the entries, and CES attendees voted to decide a winner following a program in which the finalists present four-minute pitches of their products.
"We were up against companies with household names," he says. For example, South Korea-based Samsung had two entries that made the finalist round. One was its Galaxy Camera, which is powered by an Android operating system. The other is the Galaxy Note II, a stylus-equipped smartphone with a large screen and a powerful processor.
At an anticipated initial price of about $500 the Luminae keyboard will appeal to high-end and first-adopter segments of the consumer market, Rogers says. He says some consumers will be squeamish about the price, but some are excited about its programmable capabilities that make it stand out from standard keyboards.
"We think this will have larger play in the industrial markets," Rogers says. "There's a lot of opportunity for industry-specific applications and customizable controllers."
He says three hospital groups have shown interest in TransluSense's plans to produce a self-sanitizing keyboard.
"We've got a patent pending to run ultraviolet light through the glass. It will sterilize the glass," Rogers says. He predicts TransluSense will launch the hospital version of the keyboard within six months.