In the Lab: Nice Touch

Forget super-crisp true-to-life high-definition 3D TV sets. The future lies with our sense of touch.

If you’ve ever used a Rumble Pak for your Nintendo 64 controllers (mid-‘90s, anyone?), or set your mobile phone to vibrate, you’ve already experienced the concept of ‘haptic feedback’. The word ‘haptic’ is derived from the Greek verb ‘to touch’, and the next two years are likely to see a huge increase in the amount of ‘touching’ being incorporated into technology.

Receiving some sort of physical feedback from a device is an old concept. Light aircraft used to have vibrating weights in their controls to warn pilots of various problems. Arcade games and more modern consoles incorporate appropriately timed lurches and rattles so you can feel your spacecraft exploding around you. Smartphones don’t just vibrate when someone calls you; they offer almost unnoticeable buzzes as you navigate menus and scroll through lists. The world of haptic feedback is already alive in our existing technology, but thanks to companies like Senseg and Immersion, the technology is about to reach a whole new level.

Senseg has developed a coating that can be applied to the touchscreen of a phone or tablet that allows users to feel textures, shapes and ridges. Demonstrations of the technology have seen stunned interviewers stroking a standard iPad screen and claiming they feel a stone wall, velvet, sandpaper, corrugated cardboard, even individual ball bearings that roll around as they’re touched. The effects are almost unbelievable, and the technology is equally incredible.

The coating Senseg has created is ‘piezoelectric’, which means it has the ability to turn electrical energy into physical movement. The vibration of the coating is undetectable to users (the coating itself moves a maximum of about one micrometer, a hundredth of the width of a human hair), but the electrical charge created on the surface interacts with the user’s fingertips, turning the computer-controlled friction into the illusion of texture. Essentially, the screen stays perfectly flat but electrical friction convinces users that they’re running their hands across a raised surface.

The applications of this technology seem limitless at the moment. Integrating this level of haptic feedback into smartphones, tablets and computer screens will open doors for app developers. On-screen keyboards could be designed to feel like physical keyboards, allowing tablet users to touch-type.  Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja could become even more addictive if users were able to feel the squelch of the fruit (or pig) as they played.

There are some less frivolous applications for Senseg’s haptic feedback, too: Braille on tablets and smartphones for the visually impaired, or fine-tuned physical feedback for surgeons performing keyhole procedures. Japanese researchers are looking into the possibility of combining haptic feedback with holographic projectors, creating a three-dimensional world with which users can physically interact.

With Senseg’s technology expected on the market within two years, it seems likely that the digital world might eventually become as tactile as the physical world. Another reason never to log off on your computer? We’ll have to wait and see.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.