Sensel's touchpad tech could bring realistic haptics to Windows laptops

The makers of the shape-shifting Morph are targeting your boring trackpad next.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Sensel is best known around these parts for the Morph, a shapeshifting controller that can tackle everything from video editing, to music making, to drawing by simply slapping a new cover on it. Ultimately though, underneath those silicone overlays, the Morph is basically a giant touchpad. So, it should come as no surprise that the company is now trying to get its fancy touchpads inside laptops.

Right now there are no big name partners to announce, but Sensel has been showing off its tech as part of CES 2021. I’ve been using it as my daily driver for a couple of weeks now and, well, it’s a touchpad. But a really good touchpad. The primary new addition here is a Direct Drive Haptics system. This enables it to deliver varying levels of feedback based on personal preference or how much force you apply. For demonstration purposes, the company even provided a robust configuration app that gives you extremely granular control over the force of the feedback, including separate level for up and down. But, for simplicity sake it also includes a handful of presets that deliver everything from light clicks to deep thunks.

One of the perks of this kind of haptic touchpad is that you get the same level of feedback no matter where you click. It’s not deeper towards the front and there’s no weird dead zones. Mac users are already familiar with this, but haptic touchpads are still pretty rare in the PC world. The feel of using the Sensel pad isn’t terribly different from Apple’s Force Touch. Though, it doesn’t have the level of integration that opens up a world of secondary functions on a MacBook. On the flip side, the actual “clicks” on Sensel’s pad are much more satisfying. Apple’s trackpad can feel a tad hollow and shallow.

Of course, Sensel’s high resolution touch grid and force sensors are also on board. Right now their use is limited to a handful of visualizers and a CAD demo. In the CAD demo applying force to the edges of the trackpad rotates a 3D model, while using differential force explodes it so you can see inside. It’s easy to see how this could extended to say video editing, where you could scrub through a clip faster based on how hard you press. Or be paired with a stylus for drawing, similar to a Wacom tablet.

As a plain, old touchpad, the prototype is spot on. It has a smooth glass finish and recognizes multi-finger gestures flawlessly. Honestly, it’s undeniably better than the trackpad on my two-year-old Dell XPS 15. Though, it is quite a bit smaller.

It’s anyone’s guess if or when we’ll see a Sensel touchpad in a production ready machine. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by the prospect of having a tiny Morph built into my laptop.