This is a continuation of the article: “What Comes After The Smartphone?” where we explore emerging consumer technologies and devices.
Haptic technology is sometimes referred to as kinesthetic communication or 3D touch. It refers to any tech that creates an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user. Steven Spielberg’s 2018 film Ready Player One is an example of the tech in action. In the film, people were able to enter a virtual world using VR goggles, gloves, and a full-body suit which allowed the players to feel the virtual objects and any accompanying sensations from the actions in the virtual world.
In the first iteration of this segment, I mentioned how each of our senses touches our emotions differently. As of today, advancements in digital technology have focused on our visuals while our other senses (touch, taste, smell) have been left behind in comparison.
Touch is important information that we continuously recognize consciously and subconsciously. Our nerves tell us how our bodies are positioned, what the weather is like, how tightly we’re holding something, if we’re in pain, or if someone is showing affection.
One of the first haptic technologies was in aircraft. They were vibrations felt in the pilot’s controls as a warning of dangerous flight conditions. Today, the majority of electronics that have haptic tech use vibrations in the form of an eccentric rotating mass (ERM) actuator which consists of an unbalanced weight attached to a motor shaft. Newer devices such as Apple’s iPhones use a linear resonant actuator (LRA). LRAs are capable of quicker responses and transmit more accurate haptic imagery.
Force feedback uses motors to manipulate the movement of an item held by the user. An example is in driving simulators, force feedback turns the steering wheel to simulate forces experienced when cornering a real vehicle.
Both vibrations and force feedback are commonly used in video games. In 1976, Sega’s Moto-Cross, was the first game to use haptic feedback, causing the handlebars to vibrate during a collision. Haptic devices are in almost every modern game controller, joystick, and steering wheel.
In mobile devices, haptic feedback is very common, mostly in the form of vibration. Whether you’re playing a game on your phone or receiving notifications or a phone call, haptic tech enhances the mobile phone experience. Apple’s MacBooks also started incorporating a tactile touchpad with haptic feedback incorporated into the tracking surface in 2008. Then in 2015, Apple introduced force touch trackpads into their MacBook Pro which simulated clicks.
Haptics is also becoming prevalent in other facets. Virtual reality systems are developing haptics to add a sense of touch to what used to be visual-only interfaces. Teleoperators (remote-controlled robots, drones, and machines) use force feedback to simulate forces and allow for more precision. Haptics also enhance practices in neurosurgery, art, aviation, space, and the adult entertainment industry 😉
To assist blind or deaf users, a tactile electronic display was developed to implement haptics in digital communication. It’s a display device that delivers text and graphical information using the sense of touch. This allows for an alternative to visual or auditory sensation—kind of like a digital braille device.
Heather Culbertson, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California said “In the past, haptics has been good at making things noticeable, with vibration in your phone or the rumble packs in gaming controllers. But now there’s been a shift toward making things that feel more natural, that more mimic the feel of natural materials and natural interactions.” The future is not just bright but textured.
Haptic devices are categorized into three groups: graspable, wearable, and touchable. For graspable, think joysticks or remotes. For example, robot operators can feel how much resistance the robot is pushing against with force feedback. Graspable devices often take advantage of kinesthetic sensations: feelings of movement, position, and force felt by nerves in our skin, muscles, joints, and tendons. On the other hand, wearable devices usually rely on tactile sensations such as friction, pressure, or temperature—mediated by nerves in the skin.
Wearable haptic devices are currently in the experimental phase. They use vibrations to simulate feelings of pressure from holding and interacting with digital objects. Novasentis are developing gloves that are so precise that “You can distinguish between water and sand and rock,” to be used for virtual reality and gaming. Wearable tech is able to simulate sensations of pulling, pressure, and forces using vibrations at different angles, intensities, and modulations.
The functionalities for wearable haptics go beyond entertainment and can greatly improve the quality of life for individuals with sensory impairments, and can also speed up rehabilitation for certain injuries.
Lastly, touchable interfaces allow for the simulation of textures on surfaces. Touchable devices currently exist in smartphone screens, the most common example is the bump you feel when you long-click on an app. Touchables are yet to expand beyond reactive bumps and buzzes, but scientists are working on turning textures into data to recreate them. We should expect to see touchable interfaces used for online shopping and virtual museums.
Future of Haptic Technology
Around the world, engineers are now working to recreate realistic touch sensations. Engaging touch in human-computer interactions would enhance robotic control, physical rehabilitation, navigation, education, communication, online shopping, and a lot more. And if current haptics doesn’t already impress you, the future generation of haptic technology will completely eliminate the need for a physical device to feel virtual objects. The early term for this is ‘Ultra Haptics’ where manipulation by ultrasound waves can be felt by the user—resulting in calculated feeling sensations to replicate the digital environment.
The most current tech we have of Ultra Haptics is Microsoft’s AirWave and Disney’s AIREAL which use air vortex rings to deliver non-contact haptic feedback. Their tech does not yet have a practical use because it’s not developed enough, but it’s promising to know that large companies are already working on it. If we ever reach sublime efficiency with deviceless haptics, ultra-realistic VR, and an efficient digital scent, then we may have created a new dimension?
Realistic haptics for VR may forever be distinguishable from reality and expensive to use. Or haptics may eventually make Ready Player One the norm in our society. Either way, the incremental developments we’re making are proving that haptic devices are here to stay, adding a new dimension to our digital lives.
If you’re as hyped about haptics as I am and want to explore more, then check out the video below to see someone react to a VR haptic glove!