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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With Holographic Keypad, Just Touch the Air

NEW YORK -- Douglas McPheters recalls his attempt to write a novel a decade ago. "It was a thriller about a Manhattan loan shark operating in what's left of the Soviet Union," said McPheters, a former banking and securities lawyer. He never did publish the book but he became fixated on one of his fictitious inventions: a holographic keypad that floats in midair.

From fiction to fact, the keypad has become the basis for his startup company, HoloTouch ( In July the company licensed his patented technology to InfoPerks, which is planning to use it to create "touchless" information kiosks that would be placed on sidewalks in New York City and nearby Westchester County, New York.

McPheters, 60, said his invention had drawn interest in a wide range of fields, including the military, medical, automotive and manufacturing sectors.

To help demonstrate his invention to potential licensees, McPheters has set up his laptop so that he can give a Powerpoint presentation without touching the computer, by punching his fingers into the air.

Under his system, a holographic keypad begins with a holographic image of a real keypad, recorded by lasers onto photographic film. This image is mounted on a plastic plate, with infrared sensors behind it that can detect when the keypad is manipulated. When a light behind the plate is activated, the image appears to hover in front of it.

"You can make the image appear two inches in front of the plate or a couple of feet in front," McPheters said. "You can also make it visible from a wide angle or a narrow angle. It's a very pliable medium."

A scientist, Dennis Gabor, developed the theory of holography in 1947 while trying to improve the resolution of an electron microscope. Recently, holographic lenses have been used for a number of applications: in supermarket bar code readers, for example, or to create security emblems on credit cards.

"Most people have only seen the hologram on their Visa cards," McPheters said. But holographs "differ widely in color and clarity."

Holographic lenses are already used in aircraft for "heads-up" displays, which enable fighter pilots to see critical cockpit instruments while looking straight ahead through the windshield. Heads-up displays are also available for automobiles. McPheters describes HoloTouch as the next generation of heads-up technology.

"The heads-up technology allows the operator to see information but has nothing to do with interacting with a holographic image to actually do something," McPheters said. "Our technology allows the driver of a car, a pilot, a doctor in the operating room to actually operate equipment simply by passing a finger through a holographic image."

Drivers, for example, would not have to take their eyes off the road to make a telephone call; they could punch a phone number into a transparent holographic keyboard projected in front of the windshield.

The invention would be useful in dusty areas like sawmills, and places like hospitals where hygiene is important.

McPheters is by no means the only entrepreneur hoping to transform the way that people interact with computers. Teams of researchers are experimenting with ways to activate computers through voice, light, and even gestures.

Bill Kules, a consultant and researcher in human-computer interaction at the University of Maryland, said that the holographic keypad could have many applications. "The main issues are how reliable it is," Kules said, "and how much it costs."

McPheters, who was an executive in two previous startups that failed, said he was following a lean business model now that he is running his own company. He is HoloTouch's only full-time employee and works out of his home office in Darien, Connecticut, with help from four consultants. He did not seek outside technical assistance until his patent was issued last year, after a 10-year odyssey through the U.S. patent office.

"The failed business model of the 1990s that I saw was that you get a great idea, you get a big office and hire lots of people," McPheters said. "It was like a big nest of new birds with their mouths open, waiting to be paid. I learned from my experience."