Multi-touch display maker FlatFrog gets $18m in funding – a credible adversary for Surface?

Everyone with eyes in their head can see the bright future of multi-touch displays, but the huge variety of technologies out there makes it hard to place a bet. Will capacitive film rule? Or will it be the IR overlay? Or will Microsoft’s foresight in nurturing the Surface project pay off once they reveal their new, flatter display? Well, there’s one more competitor joining the already-crowded field, and they’re coming in heavy with $18 million in funding.

FlatFrog doesn’t appear to offer any revolutionary features, although they claim to be the only current solution for large-scale displays (40″ and above). This video demonstrates that the display, which is 10cm thick all-inclusive, can handle multiple touches (up to 24, we’re told) and seems reasonably precise and responsive. It’s an in-glass solution they call planar scatter detection — which I’m choosing to understand as detecting interruptions of infrared light suffusing the glass (like the FTIR mouse). The best news is that a FlatFrog device is supposed to be rather cheaper than a Surface, probably because it uses more traditional display tech.

The lack of major differentiating features (that it works is the most important feature anyway) doesn’t seem to have discouraged investors, however: FlatFrog has raised $18 million in funding from Promethean and Invus, with Sunstone Capital participating in the round. According to them, the money is for R&D and commercialization:

These systems will initially target the education, gaming, hospitality and digital signage markets. At the same time, FlatFrog is accelerating the development of high-performance optics-based multi-touch kits and subsystems designed for smaller form-factor, high-volume consumer electronics products such as all-in-one computers, notebooks and tablet/slate devices.

The question now is whether FlatFrog will be able to distance themselves from the pack. With money they can build a substantial suite of programs and promote their product, but there’s a lot to do if they’re to outpace Microsoft, which just last year put $24m into touchscreen startup N-trig and continues to invest heavily in the project. There are no visible results yet, but I feel confident that the money is not going to waste, and MS may actually surprise us in this particular corner. If FlatFrog is smart, and I’m thinking they are, they’ll put some of this money towards serious usability research; MS has done thousands and thousands of hours of work on foolproofing and streamlining the Surface interface, and that’s something that will need to be matched either with careful design or through user feedback.