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Spark 2018 awardees ALIE, bring the human touch to handheld controllers

Spark 2018 awardees ALIE, bring the human touch to handheld controllers

19 November 2018 Written by By Laura Woodroffe

Design Council Spark awardee Ming Kong came to our product accelerator programme with a brand-new technology. Developed on a Design Engineering Fellowship, his touch-sensing material held the promise of a new way to facilitate human-machine interactions, in many fields, and for many different users.

“The great thing about the Design Council Spark programme is that you can come to it with either a design or a product idea,” says Ming Kong, designer of ALIE and one of the recipients of the Spark fund. “The programme will show you how to take that, whatever stage it’s at, and apply design thinking methodologies to get it to market. It gives you the tools and skills to get things done.

We needed a framework for working that was rigorous, that would allow us to work out a step-by-step process to follow

Ming Kong, CEO of TG0 and inventor of ALIE

Ming was already a successful design engineer with a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowship under his belt. During his Fellowship, he created a brand-new material-based, touch-sensing technology, with the potential to revolutionise human-machine interactions. “The material we designed senses human touch without the use of electronic sensor assemblies”, he says. “It came first, and I founded the company TG0 to commercialise the product.”

The Spark programme offered Ming and his then-newest business associate Andy Stewart, the support to achieve their ambitions. “There’s an inherent risk in a project like this,” says Ming, “especially for a small company like ours. We needed not only the financial support that Spark could give us, but also a framework for working that was rigorous, that would allow us to work out a step-by-step process to follow, and that would keep us working in a disciplined way without a client there to push us.”

During the Spark programme participants are exposed to a discovery process that helps them to challenge their own ideas about their product, and its potential users. Ming and his team identified many opportunities for the product in business-to-business (b2b) markets in sectors like gaming, design and healthcare.

They identified a potential use-case in mirror therapy. It is used to treat people with motor problems or limb amputations. “The ability of our controller to project hand movement into a virtual field could enable mirror therapy to become more digitally interactive, especially for hand issues,” says Ming. “The device would be able to gather more useful data regarding the movement capability and squeezing capability of patients.” Other opportunities in the healthcare arena they discovered included a way of improving human-to-machine translation for sign language users, enabling them to use signing to control a computer. An interface built with TG0’s touch-sensing technology would be lightweight and compact.

I wanted something that would put us in direct contact with the end user, we needed a b2c product idea

Ming Kong, CEO of TG0 and inventor of ALIE

But Ming wanted to build a brand. “Straightaway I knew we needed to create something that would put us in direct contact with the end user and allow us to build a customer-facing brand for the technology, we needed a business-to-consumer (b2c) product idea as well.” Ming and his colleagues focussed their effort on the Design Council Spark programme in this direction.

As a designer, Ming often used computer-aided design (CAD) software such as Gravity Sketch to create and explore three-dimensional models. But the controllers used to manipulate the virtual 3D environment weren’t up to scratch. “When you put someone in a digital or virtual environment, they want control,” says Ming. “Traditional controllers such as styluses, gloves, or joysticks don't give you that. They are clunky and often require a stationary posture to use them. You can't explore and manipulate the digital space as efficiently as you would a real space.”

Ming and his team realised that their material could solve some of these problems. Malleable to the touch it allows not only for a controller without buttons, but one that that is able to detect and respond to gestures and the non-vocal communications that humans use as they explore the world around them. The ALIE controller was born. “It’s not just on or off with ALIE, says Ming, “It is able to capture every finite movement of the hand and translate it to intuitive functions.”

The Spark programme was to play a big part in shaping the development of ALIE, pushing the team to keep their approach as user-centred as possible. “After our first presentation, one of the design associates pointed out that we had completely deprioritised our most important users,” says Ming. “We were holding back because we thought we should show them the best possible version. The Spark team advised us to get the product to them for testing immediately.”

Ming and Andy took the advice and it fundamentally changed the design. “We learned that by far the most important thing for these users was size,” says Ming. “They wanted it to be small, as small as possible, which ended up dominating the whole process. Without that advice, we might never have discovered it.”

The design-thinking methodology that creates the foundations of the Spark programme is applied to every aspect of the project. The programme helps participants to design not only their product and brand but their very business model. It introduced Ming and Andy to the ‘Lean start-up model’ as a way of controlling risk. “It helped us to set goals that were relevant to the things we could actually do now. It stopped us from wasting time, for example by trying to do the marketing before the product was properly finished.”

Since completing the Spark programme, Ming and Andy have had considerable success with ALIE. They are already shipping to corporate clients and have created a developers’ version of the controller which can be customised. They are planning a crowdfunding campaign and have met with investors, aiming to go into production to the b2c market by mid-2019.

Design Council Spark is an innovation support and funding programme designed to help you turn your bright idea into a commercially successful product.

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