A touching story from Visualplanet

Exporting is GREAT: Visualplanet

What if you could touch a shop window and manipulate information about the products inside, even when the shop's closed?

Girl using touchscreen on shop window

It was that seed of an idea, planted almost 15 years ago, that led Vernon Spencer to set up his company Visualplanet.

Vernon, who had a background in software, left his job and relied on his savings to develop the idea.

“I spent the first year writing a business plan, and developing the products. I had a clear idea what I wanted to do, but lacked the technology.”

Touchfoil turns surfaces into tablet-style touchscreens

He persevered and came up with touchfoil, a clear flexible film that turns thick glass and many other surfaces into tablet-style touch screens, even for users who are wearing gloves.

The product was first installed in an estate agent’s window in Cambridge in 2003 to provide 24/7 access to information on available homes. Helped by the publicity this generated, Visualplanet soon began receiving global orders. “We got enquiries from all round the world, but we didn’t have the capacity to service them,” says Vernon. 

“So we morphed from a services-based business to a manufacturing business and global distributor. We needed to do it quickly, within months, so we created an extensive re-seller partner channel around the world,” he added.

The flexible film is an ideal export product as it can be rolled up into a tube and shipped worldwide. Exports account for all but a fraction of Visualplanet’s latest annual sales of £3m.

The Cambridge-based company now distributes through partners in over 85 countries, with North America and Europe its largest markets. As well as growing sales in its existing markets, Vernon also anticipates growth in Asia, South America, and Africa.

Alongside the shop front windows that provided the original inspiration, the technology has been integrated into bus shelters, vending machines, museum exhibits and more, with customers including Microsoft, Vodafone, and Levi’s.

Samsung installed 70 touchfoil films in its South Korea innovation museum

Another is Samsung, which last year installed 70 of Visualplanet’s touchfoil films in its innovation museum in South Korea. Visitors can use the transparent displays to access more information about the artefacts.

Vernon describes himself as a “technologist” and he’s put technology at the heart of his company, not just for product development. “When Google was in its infancy we made use of Google advertising. We used cloud computing so we didn’t have to invest in hardware and infrastructure,” he says.

Some of the technology that Visualplanet uses was developed in-house, while it also uses partners, such as ICT services provided by BT Business.

An international trend towards interactive technology looks likely to benefit Visualplanet further. Vernon says: “We’re seeing the education of masses by smart phones and tablets. If the younger generation walks up to a display and they can’t interact with it, as far as that user is concerned, it’s broken.”