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'Phantom' Interface Takes Annual $10K

By Oleg E. Drozhinin

On Wednesday, Sensable Devices, Inc. was announced the winner of the sixth annual MIT $10K Entrepreneurial Business Plan Competition. Sensable's project, the Phantom Haptic Interface, was a human-computer touch interface and input device. The project bested 44 other student teams to take the $10,000 David and Lindsay Morgenthaler Grand Prize.

The competition is coordinated by students from the School of Engineering and the Sloan School of Management and young alumni, with the support of donors and advisors from both inside and outside the Institute. At least one team member must be an MIT undergraduate or graduate student and teams with a mix of technical and business savvy are encouraged.

Winning-team members Thomas Massie G, Rhonda Massie '95, and Anthony Cirurgiao received the monetary award at a ceremony hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum.

"The competition provides the discipline of a deadline, the incentive of $10,000, and feedback from venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs," said Joost P. Bonsen '92, one of the competition's lead organizers.

"This year's finalist's business plans were the best we have received in years," said Christina Jansen of the MIT Technology Licensing Office, one of the eight judges for the competition. "The team has a very sound plan, realistic time frame for developing different applications in the future, and a very good presentation."

Claiming to be more than just another 3-D mouse, the Phantom would allow users to actually feel virtual objects. The Phantom's three motors physically exert an external force on the user's finger tip, creating the illusion of interacting with solid objects. The user's finger tip can appear as either a point or a frictionless sphere within the virtual world.

"The Phantom [makes possible] an entirely new way of interacting with computers," Thomas Massie said. "We have monitors for seeing, and audio speakers for hearing finally, the Phantom enables touching." The Phantom was part of Massie's undergraduate thesis.

The Phantom could be used for medical training, computer-aided design applications, tele-operations, and an interface for the blind, Massie said.

$10K could be $100K

"The $10K Competition is an extracurricular component of MIT's broader efforts to educate and inspire the next generation of MIT corporate founders and leaders," Bonsen said.

The competition has expanded since last year from 33 to 45 teams. Bonsen attributes the expansion to stronger full-semester and IAP courses and "several mixers among entrepreneurial science, engineering, and Sloan students."

Next year, Bonsen anticipates that the prize fund might increase ten-fold to $100,000 to attract a greater number of participants and to properly seed-fund their development. During the first semester, a business concept competition will be launched to encourage earlier and better prepared participation in the second semester full business plan competition, he said.