Gadgets Are Getting Better at Fooling Your Sense of Touch

Touch feedback that’s more nuanced than a simple buzz could make virtual reality more real and cars safer.

Being able to communicate via our sense of touch could make computing devices more varied and useful.

The offices of Immersion in San Jose, California, may be the touchy-feeliest place I’ve ever been. The walls of one conference room are lined with tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and other gadgets that all have the ability to stimulate your sense of touch.

I’m here to experience technology that can go far beyond the sometimes annoying buzzing that passes for touch feedback today in devices such as smartphones. Immersion and other companies are beginning to roll out a new wave of more real haptic feedback techniques. They could enhance our smartphones and tablets, and become crucial to new gadgets such as virtual reality headsets and smart watches. Apple has positioned haptic feedback as a central part of its smart watch, to be released in April, boasting that it will get your attention with what feels like a light tap on the wrist, not a crude buzz.

Some of Immersion’s latest technology can wring more nuanced sensation from the buzzers in existing devices. Last fall, the company released software that app makers can use to let you feel things like explosions or the whirring of helicopter blades when you hold a smartphone. It was put to use in a promo for the latest season of the TV show “Homeland” in apps from cable network Showtime and the news site Slate. More content, including ads, using the technology will be coming soon, says Chris Ullrich, Immersion’s vice president of user experience.

Immersion has also developed a way to fool fingers sliding over a touch screen into feeling textures that aren’t really there. When I swiped across the screen of a tablet in the company’s engineering lab, I felt a palette of different sensations such as the roughness of gravel, the nubbiness of carpet, and the bumpiness of a metal grating.

Those changing sensations were made by using a special conductive layer on the device’s touch screen to alter the electrostatic attraction between my finger and the screen, creating a sense of friction. Some companies, such as Tangible Haptics, an early-stage startup, are already building products using the electrostatic technology. They think the trick can be used to help drivers use in-car displays without taking their eyes off the road.

Another startup, Tactical Haptics, is working on technology to bring physical realism to the experience of using a virtual reality headset such as the Oculus Rift.  

At their Palo Alto workspace, founder and CEO Will Provancher and software engineer Michael Jones sat me in a desk chair, strapped an Oculus Rift headset to my face, placed headphones over my ears, and then handed me their latest prototype. It is a black-and-yellow gaming controller with the company’s “reactive grip” technology. Sliding plates in the handle of the controller exert forces on your hands to mimic the sensation of interacting with real objects.

In a simple shooting game, the controller jumped as a gun might when I pulled the trigger. In a more complex demo, I held a controller in each hand to grab and toss around cubes of different sizes. Varying resistance from the controllers gave the feeling that they had different weights.

While the controllers are still pretty chunky, with a 3-D printed body and a Sixense Razer Hydra motion-sensing controller attached to the bottom, I could imagine a sleeker version becoming a valuable part of an immersive virtual reality experience.

Despite those technical advances in fooling our sense of physical reality, companies working on touch-feedback technology still face significant challenges. One is to minimize latency—the time lag between touching something and feeling a response. The human nervous system is sensitive enough that even a delay of milliseconds can feel too slow, says Vincent Hayward, a professor studying haptics at Paris-based Université Pierre et Marie Curie’s Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics.

The fact that we make very fine distinctions such as between the feel of “cheap” and “nice” paper also suggests that it will be very difficult for any haptics device to completely fool our sense of touch, says Hayward. “Creating an adequate tactile sensation is not a simple matter, and it’s often underestimated,” he says.

In addition to the technical challenges, gadget makers have previously shown minimal interest in haptics technology because compelling use cases have proved elusive.

That makes it harder for newer haptics technology to gain a foothold. Ed Colgate, cofounder and president of Tangible Haptics, says that without proof that people really want better physical feedback, gadget makers are loath to invest in it.

“You can’t get people experiencing the haptics with really, really cool apps unless there’s something to experience it on,” Colgate says. “It’s a chicken and egg thing.”

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