February 15, 2011      

Imagine playing a football video game and experiencing the jolt in the gaming controller when your player gets tackled, or feeling the retort of an AK-47 or the rapid breathing of a player in a chase sequence. Or think about an emergency medical technician using a mobile medical pump that enables the EMT to experience the sensation of helping someone to breathe, or an automobile mechanic that can feel and hear the efficiency of a car engine.

All of these things will be possible thanks to advanced actuator technology due out in a variety of products later this year from Artificial Muscle Inc. The patented Electroactive Polymer Artificial Muscle (EPAM) technology simulates the feel of a human muscle. The artificial muscle has applicability in a wide variety of applications, including games, medical technology, smartphones, industrial controllers, and robotics. When used in a game, for instance, it will be able to simulate the roll of a dice, the movement of a game piece, gunfire, or a variety of other physical actions.

The six-year-old Sunnyvale, Calif.-based firm, which was acquired in March 2010 by Bayer MaterialScience LLC, holds some 46 patents for its EPAM haptic technology. AMI and Bayer MaterialScience are betting that the ability to feel and experience sensations via the artificial muscle technology will prove to be strong enough to lure consumer and corporate users away from traditional keyboard-based devices. 

Certainly, Bayer MaterialScience believes that to be the case. AMI has not shipped any product in volume yet, but its approximately two dozen employees are operating as a wholly owned subsidiary. AMI is taking full advantage of its parent company’s deep research and development monies and international sales force to expand and promote its touchscreen technology for use in a range of consumer electronics devices.

The company has at least two products, including a peripheral gaming device, slated for release in time for the 2010 holiday season, according to Marcus Rosenthal, an AMI co-founder and director of strategic alliances. Additionally, he disclosed that two and possibly three as yet unnamed cell phone carriers have slated releases in the 2011 timeframe.

And, as the demand and market opportunities develop, AMI will target its EPAM actuators for inclusion in robotics devices, Rosenthal says.

Artificial Muscle Background
AMI was spun out of SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) in early 2004.  SRI’s original business plan called for it to develop active robots capable of lifelike movements; e.g., walking, jumping, swimming, and climbing. SRI continues to focus on artificial muscle robots that use biomimetics, as seen in this YouTube video of its EPAM-based Flex Robot crab posted in December 2009.

AMI’s immediate and intermediate business plan is to commercialize the EPAM actuator technology for use in electronic and industrial applications, because it feels those markets are easier to monetize over the next two to three years, Rosenthal says. In late 2008, AMI began to leverage the real-time response and versatility of the EPAM technology to create its Reflex brand of haptic actuators. These products are targeted at:

  • Touchscreens/pads
  • Smartphones
  • Computer peripherals
  • Mobile medical pumps
  • Gaming controllers
  • Automotive (for more efficient engines)
  • Point-of-sale (POS) kiosks
  • Industrial controls
  • Casino gaming machines

The EPAM actuator technology is designed to imitate certain performance characteristics of natural muscle such as high strain, high peak power, and high compliance. The goal is for the artificial muscles to mimic the dexterity and mobility of natural, living creatures.

Touchscreens Taking on Keyboards          
AMI’s actuators are embedded in touchscreen devices to mimic the feel of a keyboard, the roll of a dice, or any other activity the user performs in a specific application. In addition to seeing and hearing the application, the user will also “feel” it in a tactile sense, heightening the experience, which explains the obvious appeal.

Although they are using a touchscreen, users feel the surface of the touchscreen being raised and lowered, similar to what they would experience when their fingers connect with and depress the keyboard keys. The plastic actuators, or artificial muscles, move the touchscreen to provide up to 10 million tactile clicks or touches, Rosenthal says.

The emergence and burgeoning popularity of a new class of tablet devices like Apple’s iPad as well as a wider range of touchscreen-based smartphones is spurring the overall trend toward touchscreens. 

“The industry is moving away from mice and keyboards. Unlike a traditional keyboard, our EPAM actuator technology enables the entire screen to move, and not just the specific spot where you touch,” Rosenthal says.

Still, traditional keyboards are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. “The touchscreen isn’t perfect,” observes Chris Jones, vice president and principal analyst at Canalys, a market research firm. “The artificial muscle technology is sexy, but the RIM [Research In Motion] BlackBerry will likely maintain a large part of the U.S. market.”

Although it is not a panacea-until users gain experience they are likely to make typos or other mistakes-the plastic artificial muscle does represent a viable alternative to traditional keyboards and buttons. The technology has few drawbacks and some very obvious advantages. Rosenthal claims that the AMI EPAM technology is much lighter, smaller, quieter, more responsive, and more durable than competing alternatives.

Artificial Muscle Actuator: How it Works
The EPAM is a thin layer of specialized plastic film that is sandwiched between two electrodes. The film collapses by several tenths of a millimeter when a current is applied, thus lowering the surface. By executing this action-that is, whenever the user hits the touchscreen surface of a device-it will simulate the feel of a finger pressing on a button. The user perceives that he or she is applying the correct amount of pressure needed to successfully complete the activity.

AMI engineers knew they needed to overcome significant technical challenges to achieve the desired durability and flexibility. This included the ability to survive and work effectively in high-humidity scenarios. The company also knew it needed to produce the EPAMs in volume to achieve cost efficiencies.

 “We initially had difficulty in getting the actuators to last more than an hour in high humidity; we overcame that and then achieved a breakthrough in high-volume manufacturing techniques to make the products at more affordable price points,” Rosenthal says.

This summer AMI lined up a factory that will produce one million actuators or artificial muscles a month so it can ship products by year’s end.

 “We’re targeting products for a range of applications, including valves, pumps, power generation, and sensors,” Rosenthal says. “These designs have a high power density, are energy efficient, and also deliver unique enabling benefits to each application.” 

AMI’s decision to focus on several specific high-demand vertical markets like smartphones and gaming peripherals is a wise one. AMI is also sagely pursuing a long-term strategy of diversification. Its plastic artificial muscles will address such emerging applications as mobile medical devices, automotive, and industrial controllers, and eventually even back to its core competency in robotics. This diversification ensures that AMI will not rely on a single vertical and should serve to insulate the company from the vagaries of the ongoing economic downturn.

Focusing on Durability and Stability
AMI also undertook an extensive testing and qualification program to ensure that its artificial muscles would have sufficiently long life spans, high reliability, and stable performance over a wide variety of operating environments.

 “The durability comes from the elastomer material, which is typically deployed as a shock absorber. There are essentially no moving parts-it’s a lot like Gumby,” Rosenthal notes. “Our standard products are specified to 10 million cycles within 10 percent of peak performance.

The proof, of course, will be when the actual products ship. On paper, AMI has a lot going for it: a team of engineers with a decade of experience in EPAM actuator technology, access to a deep pool of Bayer MaterialScience R&D monies and its international sales force, and a sound business and technology plan.

AMI must now execute against its business plan and deliver top notch, trouble-free products and craft a compelling, cogent marketing plan.

Robotics a Long-Term Target
AMI’s immediate challenge, Rosenthal says, is to score design wins on touchscreens in the smartphone and gaming device market segments. “Right now we’re focused on ‘low-hanging fruit,’ or the most immediate revenue streams such as smartphones, games, medical applications like pumps and valves, and fluid control for infusion devices and portable pumps to dispense medication for customers at home,” Rosenthal says.

At present, AMI has not yet identified the large revenue potential in the robotics market and the mass market appeal. “Industrial robots have discrete, precise motions that can be accomplished with more traditional technologies. When you need robots that need to interact with a more unpredictable environment, that’s where the EPAM actuators would come into play and we believe that’s about five years away.”

One competitor that makes a similar technology is Eamex Corp., founded in 2001 and based in Osaka, Japan. Eamex builds a small, lightweight actuator and is targeting those markets that make practical use of its polymer actuator technology, such as electroactive polymer (EAP)-based eye shown here on YouTube. 

Although robotics are on AMI’s back burner for now, it is still formulating a strategy to address that market, according to Rosenthal. “We do eventually want to develop robots that can realistically mimic animal, insect, or human-type motions,” Rosenthal says. He notes, “It’s tough to adapt discrete robots to certain types of movement like jumping [or] walking in sand-you need a lot of stored energy and a lightweight robot. I don’t see us doing this in the next five years, but when AMI does address the robotics market, we will ensure that the robots will appear extremely lifelike and be able to perform more complex motions.”

The Bottom Line
As far as the engineers at Artificial Muscle Inc., are concerned, muscles are human motors and the company’s patented Electroactive Polymer Artificial Muscle (EPAM) plastic actuators are the next best thing. The artificial muscle technology simulates the feel of a human muscle, and has applicability in a wide variety of applications, including games, medical technology, smartphones, industrial controllers, and robotics. AMI’s actuators are embedded in touchscreen devices to mimic the feel of a keyboard, the roll of a dice, etc.
The company, a spin-off from SRI International and a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer MaterialScience LLC, has its roots in robotics. However, for the foreseeable future, AMI will concentrate on embedding its artificial muscles in consumer electronics products while waiting for demand to materialize in the robotics market.