Startup from chip veterans releases sensor to replace phone buttons

(Reuters) - UltraSense Systems on Tuesday released a sensor that aims to eliminate mechanical buttons on the sides of smartphones.

The San Jose, California-based startup was founded by semiconductor industry veterans from InvenSense, a company that supplied motion sensors to phone makers such as Apple Inc AAPL.O and others before being acquired by Japan's TDK Corp 6762.T for about $1.3 billion in 2016.

The new firm is joining a race to replace physical buttons on the side of smart phones with technology based on ultrasonic sound waves. Some phone makers such as Asustek Computer Inc 2357.TW are already selling phones aimed at gamers that allow the user to hold the phone horizontally and tap "Air Triggers" along its top edge as virtual buttons with their index fingers while their thumbs tap the screen.

The company said on Tuesday that it had released a chip that is about the size of the head of a ballpoint pen that will allow users to tap the frame of a phone rather than mechanical buttons to control volume levels, take pictures or carry out other functions. The system works regardless of whether the phone frame is made of steel, aluminum, glass or plastic.

UltraSense said that the new chips will be included in several consumer electronic devices next year, but did not disclose which companies they would come from.

The company joins a growing field of competitors vying to replace mechanical buttons. In October, Sentons, a startup headed by an ex-Apple engineer, launched a chip aimed at the same purpose, saying that it had Asus and two other smart phone makers whose names it did not disclose signed up as customers.

Inside smart phones, every millimeter of space is highly prized by phone designers because it can be used to pack in more features like larger batteries or new, larger antennas that will be required to handle 5G, the next generation of mobile data networks. Replacing buttons with a chip also makes phones easier to manufacture, said Daniel Goehl, UltraSense’s chief business officer

“We are seeing a paradigm shift,” Goehl told Reuters in an interview. “We’re eliminating mechanical buttons, physical cutouts and waterproofing.”

Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Sandra Maler