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Spin-off touts touchscreens for handhelds

Posted: 22 Feb 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:touch int? touchscreen? handheld? display?

Touch Int. Inc. is spinning off its touchscreen display business in the hope of putting some fire into a market that has seen a wave of consolidation. The spin-off will bring an improved resistive technology to market and announce a handful of manufacturing partners later this year.

Touch Int. was itself a spin-off of TouchSystems, a sales representative for the touchscreen business of eTurboTouch. Touch Int. has added engineering clout by appointing Gary Barrett as chief technology officer; Barrett holds several touchscreen patents, including one for five-wire resistive technology.

Barrett, CEO Michael Woolstrum, and other principals at Touch Int. left existing touchscreen companies and decided to strike out on their outfits were purchased by larger companies. Over the last two years, 3M Co. acquired both Microtouch Systems Inc. and DynaPro, and conglomerate Tyco Int. Ltd acquired Elo TouchSystems Inc. and Carroll Touch Systems.

"With all the acquisitions there have been a lot of defections and a bit of a brain drain in the touchscreen field," said Woolstrum. "Customers are finding they actually need to provide these companies with some design guidance. We come in as a new company that is a lot hungrier than these large established players," he said.

"They have an aggressive plan, but at this point it's just a plan," said Mark Fihn, vice president of market watcher DisplaySearch, who tracks portable computer displays.

Touch Int. has a chance to make hay with a focus on the fast growing flat-panel display market and with its locations in the United States, Asia, and Germany, Fihn said. "There are no touchscreen players with the exception of 3M with a strong global presence right now, and these guys are going after a global market," he said. "But going up against 3M will not be easy."

Product plans

The company's first product, the Turbo T6, brings five-wire resistive technology to handhelds like the iPaq and Palm computers, which use 3.8-inch diagonal LCDs. That technology used to require a half-inch border of touchscreen overlay around the display, but Touch Int. reduced that border to less than a quarter-inch thanks to a new resistive circuit.

The T6 also sports a handful of other enhancements. The durability of the overlay material has been improved to reduce hazy display images from worn overlays. And it has added EMI shielding that's needed for some medical applications. In addition, the overlay sports a "palm rejection" feature that rejects input from a hand resting on the display while the touchscreen concentrates on input from a pen tip.

The company plans to roll out its initial product line at CeBIT in Hannover, Germany, on March 13.

Barrett's team is now working on two new products that could debut before the end of the year. One uses a force-sensitive technology to compete with capacitive and acoustic-wave touch screens. It is aimed at kiosks that can provide a bright outdoor image and respond to touch from a gloved hand or other object.

The other project will use a non-glass, flexible screen aimed at small handheld systems, especially those that might want a convex or concave display. It will use a technology that competes with capacitive displays.

But market watcher Fihn was skeptical the small company will deliver any radically new technologies. "I don't see them doing anything that is really new so much as bringing together existing technologies," Fihn said.

Touch Int. will rely on eTurbo in Taiwan for the majority of its manufacturing of resistive and capacitive touchscreens. However, it also has relationships with manufacturing partners in China, Korea, and Japan that have additional capabilities, including an ability to provide other touchscreen technologies or whole systems packages.

Little leverage

By relying on manufacturing partners, Touch Int. will be able to move forward with a small payroll of only about 25 employees scattered across the United States, Asia and Europe. Woolstrum said he intends to leverage the company's low overhead to be aggressive on product pricing against better-heeled competitors.

The company is getting off to a running start. Thanks to a transfer of some existing business from its systems integrator parent, Woolstrum said he thinks Touch Int. can pull in $20 million in revenues in 2002. He aims to grab more than 10 percent of the market for touchscreen products.

The worldwide market for touch screens will increase to $4 billion in revenues by 2004, according to Touch Int. Touchscreen displays are used in a wide variety of kiosks, POS terminals and handheld devices, the company said. ATMs and POS machines have contributed to the market's dramatic growth, analyst Fihn said.

Touch screens in mainstream computers could lead to the next wave of adoption, he added. "Every PDA has a touchscreen, and 15 million of them shipped last year," Fihn said. "PDAs have educated people in pen input, and that will now extend to new tablet PCs," he said. "Acer, Compaq and HP have beautiful designs for these machines."

? Rick Merritt

EE Times

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