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Touch screens are ubiquitous today. But a common complaint is that the smooth surface just doesn’t feel as good to use as a physical keypad. While some touch-screen devices use mechanical vibrations to enhance users’ experiences of virtual keypads, the approach isn’t widely used, mainly because mechanical vibrations are difficult to implement well, and they often make the entire device buzz in your hand, instead of just a particular spot on the screen.

Now, engineers from three different groups are proposing a type of tactile feedback that they believe will be more popular than mechanical buzzing. Called electrovibration, the technique uses electrical charges to simulate the feeling of localized vibration and friction, providing touch-screen textures that are impossible to simulate using mechanical actuators.

One of these groups, composed of researchers from Disney Research in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Paris Sud, presented a paper earlier this month at the User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) symposium in New York City. In the paper, they described their approach to electrovibration, called TeslaTouch, in which they modified a commercial touch panel from 3M that uses capacitive sensing – the approach used in most mobile phones and in the iPad.

The touch panel is made of transparent electrodes on a glass plate coated with an insulating layer. By applying a periodic voltage to the electrodes via connections used for sensing a finger’s position on the screen, the researchers were able to effectively induce a charge in a finger dragged along the surface. By changing the amplitude and frequency of the applied voltage, the surface can be made to feel as though it is bumpy, rough, sticky, or vibrating. The major difference is the specially designed control circuit that produces the sensations.

It’s a challenge, says Ivan Poupyrev of Disney Research, to vibrate a screen in a way that makes sense for a user. When an entire device buzzes, it can be more annoying than helpful. There are also technical hurdles and extra costs in making a touch screen mechanically move. The goal, then, was to create a tactile sensation without using any mechanical motion. “It sounds crazy,” Poupyrev says, “but that’s what we’ve done with TeslaTouch.”

Electrovibration was first proposed for touch screens in the 1950s, but the approach didn’t see widespread use because the screens didn’t achieve commercial success until recently. Now, with many researchers looking for ways to improve the now-popular screens, other groups have also rediscovered electrovibration. Nokia recently announced a smartphone prototype that uses the approach. And a Finnish company called Senseg has also implemented electrovibration in touch screens, having closed deals with three companies to incorporate the technology into products that could be available in 2011.

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Credit: Disney Research

Tagged: Computing, touch screen, sensing, friction, vibrations

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