Before founding East Liberty-based startup Touchwood Labs, Matthew Dworman, a self-described serial entrepreneur and master craftsman, created furniture with hidden compartments. 

“I loved the concept of things having more than one purpose,” Dworman said over video chat. “When I was a kid, I loved the Transformers. And so with the furniture, I tried to take advantage of otherwise wasted space to provide additional storage.” 

Today, Dworman’s furniture conceals more than hidden nooks: Touchwood Labs has developed technology that transforms surfaces like wood and stone into interactive displays. By inserting high-intensity LEDs and touch sensors, as well as a polymer and bonding agent underneath materials like wood and stone, an interactive display emanates out of opaque, seemingly ordinary surface. 

Touchwood began, like so many Pittsburgh tech startups, at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2018, Dworman enrolled in CMU’s Integrated Innovation Institute for grad school, which combines studies in engineering, design, and business. It was there he met future Touchwood COO Gaurav Asthana. 

The two bonded quickly. They shared similar backgrounds — Asthana previously started a furniture design company in Mumbai, India — as well as similar concerns regarding the dangers of omnipresent technology. 

Even before the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma laid bare the ways technologists manipulate human behavior to keep people tethered to their screens, it was apparent to anyone with a smartphone just how disruptive and time-consuming personal electronic devices can become.

At a mixer for students new to CMU’s grad program, Dworman and Asthana noted that most of their colleagues, rather than getting to know each other, were staring at their phones.

“I think the true essence of the reason why Touchwood exists and the reason why we’re doing this is because we want to battle against the trend of the unhealthy relationship that people have developed with technology,” Asthana said. 

But is the solution to screen fatigue… more screens? The way Touchwood sees it, their displays help people build healthier relationships with technology. More to the point, the Touchwood display embodies the principles of calm technology, which passively inform the user through a glowing circle, for example, that they have received an email, rather than pulling the user away from the task at hand with an excerpt of the message itself. 

Dworman said that by providing “contextually appropriate” information that is distilled to its bare essence — instead of drowning the user in a never-ending stream of irrelevant push notifications — people will be able to accomplish their work more efficiently, rather than constantly being pulled away. Asthana credits Touchwood’s philosophy to the beliefs posited by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Rose in his book on smart objects and the Internet of Things, Enchanted Objects

Touchwood’s first product, the WFH Desk, will be on sale summer 2021 and will retail for about $2,000. The coronavirus pandemic derailed their original plan to embed their interactive displays into tables for restaurants, something that a customer could order from and their children could draw on with just the flick of a finger. 

Undaunted, in September, Touchwood presented at TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, and Dworman said they have been drowning in calls from furniture makers and other potential collaborators ever since.

“We’re exploring all possible avenues to get our product out there at this point,” Dworman said.

Series: StartNow PGH