Changing the Face of Displays…One Button at a Time
Recently, at the Society for Information Display (SID) show in Silicon Valley, I had the chance to meet with Michael Detarando, president and CEO of Incom and Emilijo Mihatov, business development manager at Fairlight. Incom produces fused fiber optics with a new polymer process that replaces traditional glass fiber optics. This allows the creation of new applications, and for OEMs it changes the way they can build human control interfaces. Emilijo explains how Fairlight is incorporating this technology into their famous products for the recording and broadcast industries, along with other applications such as elevator control panels.
Barry Matties: Michael, why don't you start with an overview of Incom.
Michael Detarando: Incom is the world’s largest supplier of fused fiber optic solutions. We've been in business for 44 years, enabling innovation in the medical, scientific, display and defense industries. At the SID show, we're here demonstrating the ability to take standard displays and present dynamic content in locations that are traditionally difficult to provide information. We can look at this button deck here for a gaming machine, and there's one large LCD in the back with fiber optic buttons that brings the information to the surface and then creates what gives you the equivalent of a menu-driven display off of a single display.
It has the benefits of a touchscreen, which allows you a lot of versatility on content and on presentation, yet still gives you the tactical feedback on the buttons so you know you pressed something. For this, people just want the physical feel of hitting a button in a slot machine, but for other applications people need a heads-up type of display where you press the button without having to actually look down to do it.
Matties: I see. Would that be for military and such?
Detarando: It could be for military, but even in places like your car. The touchscreens in your car are great, but you still have to consider the amount of time you have to be looking down to get your finger in the right spot and then lift it up again to actually execute that press; whereas with this, you might be able to put your hand on the button, wait until you’re ready, and then press it. You could be looking up when you actually press down. It just creates a little bit more of a user interface benefit than what you traditionally get from a touchscreen. I'm still using a Blackberry because I like buttons. The versatility of touch along with the tactical feedback of a button is much better for me. We like to think that we can actually provide both of those with the technology that we have.
Matties: I think you're right; it's the tactile feature that’s really important.
Detarando: And the durability. You can actually pound on this, but with a touchscreen you have to be more careful.
Matties: Are you building all the electronics behind this?
Detarando: No, Incom is building primarily just the fused fiber optic components that bring the information into the buttons.
Matties: I was looking at your offerings for the auto industry and I was impressed by your ability to bring your technology into various shapes and places. You're not constrained by the typical screen.
Detarando: A lot of people like to bring information inside of a knob and usually what you see is a rectangular display inscribed inside. We have that ability and we have parts in Bugatti, as well as development parts with other auto manufacturers like Audi, Mercedes, BMW, where we completely fill the knob 100% with information. There's zero dead space. You can do it using a commercially available display. You don't have to have something custom-made to fit inside your particular knob. Usually once you get down behind the knob there's plenty of real estate to stick a display inside.
Matties: It sounds like this is a really strong product.
Detarando: I think so. It adds many benefits, but it's not free and it’s not cheap. Glass technology for display has been around for decades. The real advance, and the reason we are having such success in these markets now, is Incom has developed a polymer process that uses much cheaper material and is a cheaper manufacturing process than traditional glass-based products. That has vaulted us into commercial viability for these types of products. In the past, people loved the look, they loved the idea and the concept, but the glass parts were just a little bit too expensive.
What you are seeing here is a 100% polymer product. There is no glass in there at all. Bugatti happens to want glass because it's more a piece of jewelry than it is an information display, so we have a wide portfolio depending on what the market is.
Matties: Is the polymer more reliable than the glass?
Detarando: Yes. It's cheaper and it is lighter. It has some temperature constraints, but no different than anything else inside the interior of your car. The lighter weight allows you to do more and not concern yourself with the heavy material hanging off of a display. It opens up avenues for a lot more versatility on design and display. The manufacturability is higher—it’s much easier to form and machine than a piece of glass.
Matties: Is all of your manufacturing here in America?
Detarando: It is.
Matties: How many people are in your company?
Detarando: We have about 160 people in three facilities. We have our main facility in Charlton, Massachusetts, a second R&D facility in Charlton about five miles from the other facility, and we have our polymer division in Vancouver, Washington.
Matties: Are there competitors for the polymer design or is this a patented process?
Detarando: There is no competitor for polymer. It was initially developed by a company called Paradigm Optics, which we acquired in 2011. David Welker was the president and CEO of Paradigm and he developed the technology. He's an amazing polymer scientist and he’s developed some really good products that we've enhanced since the acquisition. He's still the director of our polymer products division and it's going really well.
Matties: Nice. Congratulations.
Detarando: Thank you very much. I’d like to introduce you to Emilijo Mihatov. He's with Fairlight. Fairlight is our technology partner. They have their own IP professional audio editing and mixing systems as well as what they call picture key technology. The idea of bringing information from a display up inside of a key or a button and creating a menu-driven approach is something that they also hold intellectual property rights on. We partnered with them to put our fused fiber optics into grid.
Emilijo Mihatov: One conceptual project where our teams came together was to create a multi-level high-rise elevator panel using picture key technology for an imaginary company that owns a marine park. What we did was take our Picture Key Technology and incorporate it into a brand-new device. Instead of using the individual sugar-cube-shaped image conduits, we used Incom's latest technology, the bonded polymer as a single monolithic block. Incom uses a milling machine to mill out the gaps between the raised areas for the buttons that brings the image up into surface of the button. It looks like the button has a screen inside but in reality there is a single larger screen about half an inch back.
This is also an example of our iCan technology, which is the interface between the controlling device and the target being controlled. You have an agent that runs on the system, which presents as a little icon on the task bar in Windows. It will run on a Windows PC, on Mac OS X, on Linux and we’ve even been able to compile it to run on some embedded systems as well. The control surfaces communicate with the agent running on that target system to be controlled by TCP/IP and we can send instructions from here to the target system using just about any protocol that exists. It could be a simple keyboard shortcut command, or it could be telnet, or we could send command line instructions to applications. It's one-to-many and also many-to-one. We can have many of these control systems communicating to a single target or we can have one control system sending multiple instructions to multiple targets using multiple protocols. It’s scalable, extensible and very flexible. You could even initiate C language scripts written in plain text.
You'll notice if I go more than four floors it will actually play an advertisement on the screen. One of the properties of the iCan software is that we have multiple graphic layers in the displays. So for the keys, you'll notice I have video playing there, but I've also got the floor numbers. The numbers are layer one, that green background is layer two, layer three was the advertisement playing and layer four, the back layer, is the actual video of the fish swimming around the tank. This software all comes with the system.
This technology ends up costing about half the price of traditional inside-the-button technology, and that's all because of Incom's polymer fused fiber optic. One of the other decks they have has what they call a bash button. It's a triangular button that has a screen inside it. Do you know how hard it is to get a screen the size of a triangle? It's nearly impossible. Then try doing it in a concave shape. But with Incom's image conduits it's all really simple.
Detarando: You can shape it and contour it in any particular way.
Matties: That's great.
Mihatov: It’s a big button with a dome on it that you can hit and it looks fantastic.
Matties: The gaming industry must be a huge market for this technology.
Detarando: That's right. Fairlight was out front with their professional audio products, but the gaming industry was the first lower-end commercial market to really adopt this technology.
Mihatov: Now we're talking to manufacturers from all sorts of different industries. Can you imagine going to the DMV and taking your driving test using a panel of buttons with multiple choice answers within the keys themselves, or a manufacturing machine that has a control panel that actually gives you instructional videos on the buttons explaining what it does? Or maybe you have a multicultural workforce, and they push their own native language button and all of a sudden the user interface is in that language, all the buttons are labelled in that language, the instructions, and the text overlays in the videos that show you how the thing works can be in any language you want.
Matties: Gentlemen, this has been a very interesting discussion and again, congratulations and thanks for taking time to talk with me today.
Detarando: Thank you.
For more information, visit www.incomusa.com.