What is haptic touch?

What is haptic touch?

We're used to interacting online with our eyes and ears, but what if we could use touch as well? New research into haptic technology hopes to revolutionise VR

Until recently, enjoying virtual reality involved sight and sound via wraparound goggles and high-def headphones to convince the eyes and ears that they really were venturing through a recreated, distant or recorded environment.

Now, a new science promises to add an additional sense to technology’s ability to recreate sensations and objects.

When your phone vibrates to indicate an incoming message or a controller rattles in tune with an impact on a video game screen, those are examples of haptics—technology stimulating senses of touch and motion.

This developing field is focusing on reproducing the touch points of interacting with physical objects from a distance.

How haptic touch could enhance VR

Northwestern University outside Chicago serves as a research epicentre for this new realm, with two PhD researchers deeply involved with bringing haptics to the masses.

Michael Peshkin and Ed Colgate are both professors at the Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering. Both agree that delivering the sense of touch to touchscreens, dashboards and other devices will transform virtual reality.

“Our fingers and hands are a major channel of communication with our world,” Peshkin says. “Nowadays we spend so much of our time with our fingers on devices that communicate little or nothing back to us through touch.”

"Haptic textures can be recorded and recreated, like photographs and MP3s"

More developed haptics could allow device users to feel the surfaces of items within images. Players could manipulate virtual objects in games. Physicians could inspect skin conditions or broken bones from anywhere in the world.

Colgate explains that haptic textures can be recorded and recreated, comparing that element to photographs and MP3s.

“In sight and sound, we take it for granted that we can ‘record and replay,’” he says. “In touch, that is still unthinkable. But, what if we could it in the future?”

How haptic touch works

Illustration of hand holding line drawn phone as concept of VR and haptic touchHaptic technology uses electric fields to simulate different kinds of textures on the surface of a device

More advanced haptics use electric fields to modulate the friction between the skin and a surface to create “feels” and effects.

Most people already experienced a primitive version of such a field when they picked up freshly dried laundry radiating heat and static electricity. Until the field dissipates, the fingers can detect a buzzing, tingling sensation attached to the clothing.

One of Colgate’s favourite potential haptic applications involves the larger screens finding their way into automobiles.

“Today, you can’t use those screens without staring at them,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be nice to keep the eyes mainly on the road, with just the occasional glance? That’s how we use old-style buttons and knobs. To address this, we need to understand how to make a flat touchscreen feel like a button or a knob.”

"Haptics can produce the sensation of textures, ridges or the edges of tiles or keys, right on the glass of your phone"

Research to build such a world is underway every day at the university and at Tanvas—a company co-founded by Colgate and Peshkin that grew out of their academic work.

The tech firm makes available its TanvasTouch development software and the $2,000 Desktop Development Kit, which allow any would-be haptic explorers to programme experimental textures and other effects on touchscreens, trackpads and other specially designed physical surfaces.

“More sophisticated haptics can produce the sensation of textures, ridges or the edges of tiles or keys, right on the glass of your phone, as if the glass itself had these features embedded in it, like feeling the facets of a crystal bowl,” Peshkin explains.

“These haptic effects can be produced by the software, so they can correspond to the image that you see. The facets of that crystal bowl can change in an instant.”

New frontiers in VR research

According to Colgate, these more advanced instances of haptics are already in heavy use in scientific environments. He believes industrial applications may be on the way.

However, both he and Peshkin realise that the biggest development efforts always deal with the consumer sector. That’s where they see the biggest financial investments already being made.

“As the technology advances, the science and art of haptics has more to work with looking forward,” Peshkin says.

“As an analogy, imagine you could make visual art out of objects, but you had not yet invented canvas and paint. You'd have new worlds of art open up to you when you had access to that new medium.”

"Tanvas is making haptic touchscreens that should begin to show up in some consumer products such as cars"

Both researchers realise haptics won't be able to create experiences as realistic and various as real-world touch—at least not for many years.

Still, once haptics can produce textures and sensations quickly and at will before transmitting them to other people around the world via the internet, the world of haptic experience will become part of the public’s everyday lives.

Getting to that future will require years of work, but the research continues.

Tanvas is making haptic touchscreens that should begin to show up in some consumer products such as cars and home VR systems, while looking forward to the perfecting of curved haptic screens that are rollable or flexible—and therefore portable.

In the long run, Colgate hopes that their work “helps bring people closer together by enabling all sorts of remote touch opportunities and applications.”

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