Making Touch More Realistic: Advances in Haptic Technology

Published:05/08/2013   Last Updated:05/08/2013

Haptic technology revolves around creating a new kind of user interface that better connects our sense of touch with the form factors we use every day: smartphones, tablets, computers, etc. We get a brief glimpse of the possibilities that haptic technology offers when our phone vibrates in our pockets, letting us know that we’ve received a text message, or with the rumbling sensation we get from console game controllers. However, there’s a lot more to be explored in this field, and the implications for developers as this technology takes off are enormous.  In this article, we’re going to take a look at a few of the most prominent voices in this space, and talk about the possibilities that are coming down the pike in this exciting field.

Haptic advances

Touchscreens have been around for a while and between the launch of Windows*8, the meteoric rise of tablets, and touch-enabled Ultrabooks™, there’s no slowing down this technology. But is there more that can be done with a touchscreen than just swiping and typing?

Microsoft’s research team recently showed off a 3D touchscreen with haptic feedback. This screen was able to provide haptic feedback for the user, giving them the ability to push 3D objects around in a virtual space:

“Moving forward, the researchers hope that 3D Haptic Touch might find an application in medicine, where doctors would navigate through a patient’s 3D brain scan, looking (and feeling) for the area that requires treatment. It’s easy to imagine 3D Haptic Touch being used in education, too, allowing students to touch and feel materials that might be too dangerous or rare to handle in reality. In the PC realm, some applications might include 3D modeling and visualization apps — and I’m sure that developers are already trying to come up with games that use 3D Haptic Touch technology.” – Microsoft TechFest 2013: 3D Display with Haptic Feedback

This team has also come up with something called Digits, a 3D hand tracker that changes the user’s gestures into 3D models, using a wrist sensor to control devices with simple movements. You can see a demo of Digits below:

Touchscreens are especially important to a company called Senseg, who want to make touchscreens you can feel. Now, that might seem like an oxymoron, but the idea behind it is much more than that:

“The company, founded in 2006, uses an ultra-low electrical current to charge very thin durable coatings (made of a proprietary substance that can be applied to "almost any surface of any size") on a standard touchscreen. This creates a small attractive force to finger skin that can be modulated; sensations such as texture, edges and vibrations can be felt by the user.” –, “Senseg Wants to Bring Your Screens to Life”

According to the article, Senseg aims at “haptifying” the entire user interface. For example, when you get a phone call, instead of peering at your phone to open up the slider, you’ll be able to feel where the slider is because of its texture on the surface of the device.

Disney Research has their fingers in many different pots, including haptic technology and revolutionary new kinds of touchscreens. One of these is called REVEL:

“REVEL is a new wearable tactile technology that modifies the user's tactile perception of the physical world. It can add a layer of artificial tactile texture to almost any surface or object, with very little if any instrumentation of the environment. As a result, REVEL can provide dynamic tactile sensations on touch screens as well as furniture, walls, wooden and plastic objects, and even human skin. REVEL is based on Reverse Electrovibration. It injects a weak electrical signal into anywhere on the user's body, creating an oscillating electrical field around the user's skin. When sliding his or her fingers on a surface of the object, the user perceives highly distinctive tactile textures that augment the physical object. Varying the properties of the signal provides a wide range of tactile sensations.” - Disney Research

Watch a demo of this technology below:


Haptic technology possibilities

As you can see from the sampling of examples above, there are some pretty exciting possibilities that are being explored. Developers in this space are basically on the ground floor of futuristic technology, and that’s a good place to be. There are so many potential opportunities for haptic technology:

  • Entertainment: Like we saw in the Disney Research example above, the possibilities are extremely exciting in the field of games and entertainment with haptic technology. The challenge will be bringing this technology down to a reasonable price point, along with an understandable, dynamic user interface.
  • Hardwired: Some proponents of this technology believe that one day haptic technology will be able to directly stimulate the central nervous system in order to replicate a touch experience. This could mean brain implants, nerve stimulation, and mechanical interfaces that work in tandem with our bodies.
  • Robots: Haptic technology could greatly assist those with motor control issues or elderly people who have lost or degraded functions.
  • Wearable haptics: With Google Glass and Kinect tweaks, it looks like we’re entering a whole era of wearable body sensors and computer networks. Devices like these could be tweaked to create a completely new paradigm of human and computer interaction, providing guidance for blind people, information and help for those with special needs, or even extra interaction while doing other tasks – cooking, driving, in a meeting, etc.
  • New signals: We’re all familiar with what a vibrating phone means, but what about making that vibration more meaningful than just “you’ve got a new call”? Active research is underway that could make a “haptic language” for our mobile devices, interpreted in much the same way we are able to process a traffic signal or the light on a coffee maker.
  • Touchscreens: Our touchscreens right now offer vibrations and sound, but what about going beyond that to a touchscreen experience that allows us to reach out and “feel” images on a screen, or a touchscreen keyboard that makes it feel like we’re typing on actual, raised keys?

The challenge of realism

Haptic technology focuses on making the technology secondary to the interaction between the user and the desired object. In order to obtain this lofty goal, there has to be a gigantic investment in the technology that goes behind delivering this experience. The biggest challenge facing haptic technology advances is simply figuring out how to make it commercially viable and physically accurate, no small task. It’s exciting to speculate where we might be in this field in just a few short years, especially seeing the giant steps we’ve taken in the realm of touch technology already.

What kind of possibilities do you see in the field of haptic technology? What would you develop using haptic technology? Please share with us in the comments below. 

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