The process of poking and stroking objects is personal and subjective, which makes precise appraisal of materials difficult to quantify.

SynTouch Inc. of Montrose wants to make the experience more objective. The company manufactures a robotic digit with the characteristics of a human finger, complete with synthetic skin tissue, a fingerprint, nail, bone and dozens of sensors to mimic nerve endings.

The artificial finger is designed to experience objects as a human would, but record the experience as objective data – information that can be used to find substitute materials and help control quality. The company has identified 15 different surface qualities that humans experience when they touch an object such as texture, friction, stickiness and temperature.

“We provide a standard by which people can engage with what these different experiences represent and to quantify them so it can be reproduced in other products,” said David Groves, president of SynTouch. “If you have an optimal leather in your car … and you are trying to use a less-expensive leather, but you want to get as close as possible, we can tell you how close you are getting.”

The company claims customers include Honda Motor Co., International Automotive Components, Procter & Gamble Co. and Logitech International.

SynTouch generates revenue by selling material evaluation services. The typical material pilot study the company performs costs from $8,000 to $25,000; many factors influence price and retainers are also used. SynTech eventually wants to sell its robotic finger, called BioTac Toccare (Italian for “touch”), directly to customers. The most common uses for the technology are research and development and quality control, said company Chief Executive Jerry Loeb.

SynTech has raised about $1 million in convertible notes from Comet Labs of San Francisco and DL Capital of New York plus four undisclosed individuals, said Groves. He declined to state the company’s revenue.

Academic origins

SynTouch was co-founded in 2008 by three academics from USC: Loeb, who was a biomedical engineering professor; Chief Technology Officer Jeremy Fishel; and business development chief Matthew Borzage. Both Fishel and Borzage graduated from USC with biomedical engineering doctorates.

The company’s tactile technology – also referred to as haptic – was developed with a research grant from the Department of Defense to give prosthetic fingers a light touch while handling fragile objects such as eggs, tomatoes or crackers. The sensors in the artificial digit enabled users to gauge the right amount of pressure for gripping delicate objects.

The prosthetic limb market was small, however, so the company expanded its application to evaluating materials.

“We discovered there’s a vast industry of consumer-product haptic testing,” Loeb said.

SynTouch believes its technology could help companies find cheaper materials that feel just like their expensive counterparts, save research and development departments money through streamlined materials evaluation and give brands valuable insight into the way consumers experience products.

Loeb said companies are willing to pay top dollar for improving the feel of their products because that is motivating factor for consumer purchases in many cases.

“Things like facial tissue and toilet paper, they don’t sound very glamourous, but people value them on how they feel,” he said. “Companies charge a premium based on how they feel.”

Human feeling

There’s no substitute for the experience of human touch, admits Groves.

“The machine itself is not a human and it doesn’t know what humans like and dislike,” he said. “It just creates a stream of data to represent (surfaces) in an objective and scientific way.”

Groves noted that the company uses its technology alongside human panels and experts to help more accurately objectify the tactile experiences people are having and translate it into data for SynTouch clients.

“We map (robotic) measurements to actual human experiences and in doing so we help the company understand those consumer benefits (and) consumer delights,” he said.

The company’s ultimate aim is to become industry standard for the feel of different surfaces, similar to how the Pantone Matching System established a color scale for the printing, paint, fabric and plastics industries.

“We’ve tested thousands of surfaces,” Groves said. “We can provide insights to our partners into what haptic dimensions seem to be important for certain products.”

For example, Groves said consumers often perceive a product is cheap when its surface is coarse but luxurious when it is silky and smooth.

Some consultants in the fashion industry are skeptical that SynTouch’s technology can get a handle on textures.

“It’s not a science,” said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association. “Touch is a personal field that can’t be measured by a machine.”

She noted that she’s never heard of the technology and no one that she spoke to in her professional fashion industry network has either.

“Their mission is certainly plausible within the context of noncyclical products like food and automobiles,” Metchetk said. “However, in fashion apparel, there are usually almost 25 different fabrications, from lining to outerwear, in a brand’s line offering and this product mix changes five times a year.”

Fabric testing in the textile industry is not unheard of, according to Sophie Guevel, a research assistant at North Carolina State University’s Textile Protection and Comfort Center, who said she also hadn’t heard of SynTouch’s equipment until being contacted by the Business Journal.

It’s not clear how the technology compares to existing fabric evaluation systems on the market such as the Kawabata evaluation system and Fabric Touch Tester, she added.

“I sometimes think that companies don’t know enough about this and they should know more,” said Guevel.

Groves maintains that understanding human impressions is paramount for clothing manufacturers, as well as car interior fabricators and consumer product makers.

“A lot of times we engage in evaluating a product haptically without thinking about it,” he said. “When you go up to a rack of coats, you almost instinctively reach out and feel the product.”

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