Startup of the Week / The Next Frontier of Touch Screens: No Touch Necessary

Make typos when texting? Zrro, pronounced 'zero,' has an answer for that, and for the next generation of TV remote controls too.

Smartphone manufacturers have a problem. Mainly – where next?

The phones made by Samsung, LG and their rivals have maxed out, in terms of hardware at least. The devices have reached the maximum size of about 5 inches: any larger and they won’t be able to fit into the hand. Camera quality can hardly improve: some phones cameras create images with 13 megapixels, which are already too large.

Where can they go next? What will the next generation of devices feature? How will Samsung convince us to buy the Galaxy 5?

The answer, apparently lies not in hardware development but rather in smarter user interfaces.

We’re already starting to see voice-driven, as well as gesture-driven interfaces; Samsung even demonstrated a Galaxy 4 controlled by nothing more than the user's gaze.

Now the Israeli company Zrro (pronounced zero) is planning to take smartphone user interfaces to the next level.

“We supply touch-screen technology for any product, primarily for smartphones. What’s special about our technology is that you don’t have to actually touch the screen,” says founder and CEO Ori Rimon. “You can hover above a certain point and the screen will recognize your location.”

When the mouse cursor hovers a certain object, we get a preview, explains Rimon. And what good does that do us?

“For instance, when an iPhone is held vertically its keyboard is small, resulting in lots of typos. Hover over a certain letter and the keyboard gets bigger."

It will also work for website links: hover over it and it grows, making it easier to click, Rimon says.

He confirms that his company is negotiating with major manufacturers, and promises that products equipped with his company’s “hover touch” technology will hit the market in early 2014. But Rimon prefers to call it a 3D Multi Touch Screen. 3D refers to the ability to hover, and multi, because the technology allows one to work with two or more fingers at once.

Reach out and don't touch your TV remote

Before then however, television remote controls will hit the market equipped with Zrro’s advanced touch technology.

Zrro’s remote makes it easier to control smart TVs, especially ones with Android operating systems, Rimon claims.

When the QWERTY keyboard is displayed on the screen, the viewer can use the remote to select the correct letter.

There is some debate over how the next generation of smart TV remotes will look. Some think the remote itself will have a full QWERTY keyboard, while others believe that tablets and smartphones will be used as remotes. With his technology, claims Rimon, you don't need to take your eyes off the TV screen and look at the remote control: You see on the screen where your finger is pointing.

Tel Aviv-based Zrro is a small company with 8 workers. Its primary investors are TheTime, a venture capital fund owned by Israeli advertising personality Ilan Shiloach, and the Japanese firm Mitsubishi UFJ Capital Co. The company has received less than $3 million in investments since it was launched three years ago.

It has to be said that the Israeli tech industry isn't known for consumer hits: witness the sorry story of Dov Moran's Modu. Why will Rimon's company make it? Serendipitous timing, for one: "Our product is ready just as the smartphone companies are looking for the next thing. We’ve got a number of patents in process, and as of now, the number of prospective customers is larger than we can handle," Rimon says.

“Touch technology has been around for over 20 years, but only over the last few years has it become the leading user interface, and it will only get bigger in the years to come. In the future, touch screens will feature a z-axis as well, in addition to the standard x and y.”

What about that strange name? The word "zero" has a plenitude of cultural connotations: “For Americans, it means Coca-Cola Zero. In Japan, it’s the name of a kamikaze fighter jet from World War II, and the name actually represents bravery and strength. We didn’t know that when we went to Japan. Actually, the name is just the initials of the founders – Ori Rimon, and Rafi Zakut.”
 

Adi Emanuel