Did you see the launch video of the new Amazon Fire phone? The graphics are really impressive, with special perspective and depth effects giving the screen a 3d feel.
Very cool, definitely. But they’re not haptics.
Haptics is a simple yet breathtakingly complex technology that gives your flat screen not only a 3d feel and look, but a 3d texture as well. The word “haptic” comes from Greek and means any form of nonverbal communication involving touch. A handshake, for instance. Haptic technology recreates the sense of touch by applying force or movement. If you’ve ever played a Playstation game (3 or up) and felt the controller vibrate in your hand when you hit the wall or fall off a bridge or get bitten by the monster, you’ve already experienced haptics.
Relatively primitive, clunky haptics, though. The haptics technology that’s being developed now is positively freaky and could well blow your mind. It takes touchscreens into a new dimension, maybe not literally but as near as you can get.
I’m not going to go into the mechanics (sigh of relief), if you’re really interested you can find out more about that here and here. I do want to show you some of the applications for your smartphone or tablet that we know about, so we can briefly dwell on uses that we have yet to come up with. The potential impact on transport, research, surgery, video games and even prosthetics is also quite spectacular, but we can go into them another time.
The version of haptic technology most likely to make it to market in the near future uses weak electrical currents to create the sensation of friction on your fingertips. You run your fingers over a smooth touchscreen, and it really seems like it has bumps. The precision is such that this text could be published in braille. Yes, blind people will be able to read information online.
You can detect textures, even shapes in 3d. Pass your fingers over a flat screen and you can “feel” the image on the screen. Soft, hard, rough, smooth… You can feel a jellyfish, a book, a teapot… This video from Disney Research is quite jaw-dropping, but it does throw in a lot of phrases like “enhanced functionality” and “rich spatial dimensionality”, which is a bit much for this time of day (or any time of day, really). You might want to watch it with the sound off.
Will we even need keyboards? Your touch screen is already a keyboard, but I don’t know of anyone who prefers tapping to typing. With haptics they will become even more realistic, to the extent that the current interface which takes up a lot of space will soon seem clunky. Reconfigurable keyboards that look and feel 3d can create new functions for games and applications, in any language.
Think of the potential for e-commerce. Imagine being able to “feel” the fabric of the item of clothing you’re thinking of buying. Or the texture of the stuffed toy.
The implications for design and architecture software are also quite exciting. Microsoft recently demonstrated haptic technology which allows you to push items around a screen with your hands. You will be able to move texture-realistic furniture around with your finger, change materials, get a good idea of how the finished product will feel.
Imagine what this function, integrated into tablet screens, can do for learning. We all know that the more senses involved, the more we learn. Feel the river you’re labelling. Understand the difference between aluminium and iron atom structures. Identify leaves by their surface texture.
And, of course, there are the gaming possibilities. Find the exit in the dark. Choose the softest curtain to look behind. Know when the sand is not as dense.
Haptic technology will change how we interact with our flat screens, and as our culture becomes ever more screen-centric, haptics will provide a varied and more interesting experience. We will most likely end up loving our phones and tablets even more than we already do.
And not just our phones and tablets, haptics could even bring us closer to those most important to us. Imagine being able to hold the hand, or at least touch it, of a loved one on the other side of the world! Your touchscreen would register your touch and transmit it to another touchscreen. When their fingers touch yours, you would both feel it. I like the sound of that.
Combine the sensation of touch with the holographic effect of 3d images, and you open up a world of possibilities for e-commerce, games and education. Even relatively straightforward 3d illusions can seem startlingly real when you can “feel” the shapes. As hologram technology advances, and haptic technology can be projected, we will be getting really close to a virtual reality.
In other posts I’ll go into the implications for healthcare, fitness, design… The potential uses for and advances in the haptic technology field are completely exhilarating, and as the cost comes down, we should soon start to see incredible haptics possibilities in everyday items. Meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy what is possibly the best example of haptic or non-verbal communication known to man: a good warm hug.