Haptics: The feel-good technology of the year

How 'high-fidelity haptics' from Immersion and Apple will transform the experience of using gadgets

The touch screen is taking over cell phones, and soon mobile computing and even desktop computing. Both Apple and Microsoft are working on a transition to touch-enabled versions of OS X and Windows. Touch screens are coming in, and keyboards and mice are on their way out.

But if you dread the loss of physical keyboards and mice, with their reassuring physical clicking and movement, you should know that two Silicon Valley companies plan to artificially replicate the feel of at least keyboards on touch devices. But that's just the beginning. They also intend to create high-quality feedback for other on-screen objects, such as buttons, window edges and even video game action.

Of course, haptics in the form of buzzing vibrations have been with us for a while and are already contributing to a much richer experience with devices of all kinds. South Korea's Samsung, LG Electronics and Pantech, Finland's Nokia, Canada's Research In Motion and many other cell-phone makers are using haptic feedback.

Samsung even makes a phone with the word "haptic" in the model name: The Samsung Haptic 2. The phone uses haptics to create a physical dimension to ringtones. The phone vibrates according to the sound.

Haptic feedback has crept into everything from GPS gadgets to automobile dashboards in some Lexus, BMW and other makes. Samsung even sells a haptic digital camera called the ST10. A new generation of medical robots, which enable very fine, minimally invasive surgery, relies utterly on haptic feedback to the surgeon.

Haptics are great. But a transformational new generation of the technology is about to emerge from at least two Silicon Valley companies: Immersion and Apple.

Immersion's 'high-fidelity' haptics

You may not have heard of Immersion Corporation, but you've probably used their technology. Immersion licenses its designs to product makers, both in medical and consumer industries. Their medical-industry partners make robots and equipment for minimally invasive surgery. The haptics provide surgeons with tactile feedback that makes the advanced surgery possible.

In the consumer space, the company's technology shows up in gaming controllers, car dashboards, GPS gadgets, media players and, most frequently, all kinds of cell phones. Immersion claims that 70 million cell phones contain the company's haptics technology.

Immersion CTO Christophe Ramstein demonstrated today at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference a breathtaking new generation of haptic technologies he calls "high-fidelity haptics."

Ramstein called a volunteer onto the stage and invited her to play a pinball game on a specially configured Hewlett-Packard tablet PC. She immediately responded to the haptics, and said that she could actually "feel a metal ball rolling on a hard surface." She could feel all the motion of the game, the vibration of the whole machine and detailed, super-realistic but subtle tactile cues of the kind that you would feel with a real, physical pinball machine.

After playing for a minute or two, Ramstein threw a switch to turn off the haptics. The volunteer reported, essentially, that the game suddenly became cold and dead, even though all the graphics and sound were still in play.

Far beyond the one-dimensional buzzing of today's haptics, the next-generation technology will be able to serve up thousands of different sensations, which will be immediately recognizable to people.

This new world of high-fidelity haptics will be able to convincingly create sensations associated with sound and also with the shape and texture of onscreen objects.

Ramstein told me in an interview that next-generation haptics will provide cues about what's happening on screen. One application of this is simulating the feel of a real keyboard on a virtual, onscreen keyboard. Haptics can be employed to simulate the feeling of moving your finger from one key to the next, even before a key is pressed.

This is particularly important with touch-screen devices. The reason is that when you use a touch device, such as the iPhone, your fingers cover and hide the objects you are trying to interact with. Haptics substitutes vision for physical sensation when seeing something isn't easy or possible.

More importantly, however, high-fidelity haptics can bring an otherwise cold, flat screen to life. The technology can contribute to an emotional connection both between people communicating electronically, and between humans and machines.

Ramstein gave the example of an experimental device that enabled his wife to feel his heartbeat, even though he was in another city. He envisions a world of haptic devices that enable people to literally stay in "touch" with loved ones at all times, regardless of distance.

Tara Mullaney, a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, wrote recently in Design & Emotion that she sees haptic design as a way to "bridge technology and feelings, allowing us to create deeper connections and more complex sensory interactions between objects and their users."

While Immersion's next-generation "high-fidelity haptics" technology is in the prototype stage, it's almost certainly going to be baked right in to a breathtakingly wide range of consumer products over the next three years.

And then there's Apple

Earlier this month, Apple filed a U.S. patent application that describes "systems, methods, computer-readable media, and other means for utilizing touch-based input components that provide localized haptic feedback to a user."

According to Apple's patent application:

"One of a touchscreen's biggest advantages (i.e., the ability to utilize the same physical space for different functions) is also one of a touchscreen's biggest disadvantages. When the user is unable to view the display (because the user is occupied with other tasks), the user can only feel the smooth, hard surface of the touchscreen, regardless of the shape, size and location of the virtual buttons and/or other display elements. This makes it difficult for users to find icons, hyperlinks, textboxes, or other user-selectable input elements that are being displayed, if any are even being displayed, without looking at the display."

This is the same application of haptics technology that Immersion is talking about: Going beyond button-pushing feedback to representing the boundaries of objects on screen as you pass your finger over them.

Another Apple patent application from two years ago, titled "Keystroke tactility arrangement on a smooth touch surface," describes physical bumps and depressions in a screen itself, which can come and go based on what is projected onscreen. When the keyboard is present, for example, the keys become physical bumps on the screen surface.

The iPhone already supports primitive haptics, which are simple vibrating buzzes -- the haptic equivalent of the monotone beeps that PCs used in the 1980s. But the company appears to fully embrace the value and need for rich haptic interfaces for its coming universe of touch computers, which includes everything from iPhones and iPod Touch devices, to the rumored Apple tablet and next-generation desktop multitouch computers.

With Apple drinking the next-generation haptics Kool-Aid, and industry leader Immersion pioneering compelling new technologies to license to its huge number of major global partners, a revolution in haptics is all but certain.

You can almost feel the momentum.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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