It is, quite literally, the science of touch and it’s set to be the next big thing, as human interaction with the digital world becomes more competitive and challenging. Haptic technology is bringing tactile feedback in a host of consumer products, from computers to video games, surround-sound headphones and a host of others. Right now, the interaction with our computers and gadgets feels flat and lifeless because we need so little effort to perform most functions. The new horizon is improving tactile feedback in consumer technology, as companies attempt to bridge the divide between what is physical and tangible, and what is digital and virtual. Smartphones typically use haptic technology for alerts and notifications via vibrations, as well as for feedback as you type messages or dial numbers on touchscreens. Video game controllers use haptics with the Nintendo 64 rumble pack and PlayStation DualShock gamepad—to lend tangibility, felt through your hands gripping the controller, to an explosion or crash or a rough surface that you’re driving over. Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro have been incorporating a ‘Tactile Touchpad’ design with haptic feedback incorporated into the tracking surface. But there’s a lot more that haptics can do, both at the lower resolutions of feedback offered by an Xbox or PlayStation controller, and at the higher resolutions that the latest haptic technology can provide, based on how hard you press on the surface.
In most cases, haptics uses a kind of motor called an actuator to convert electrical, hydraulic or pneumatic energy into vibrations, which can be managed and controlled by software that determines the duration, frequency and amplitude. Tactile feedback has been used in telecommunications and in entertainment for decades, and it has become a standard feature in mobile phones and video games—where vibrations alert you to new messages or help you ‘feel’ the force exerted on your phone, touchpad or game controller—but only now are we seeing it begin to take its place alongside visual and audio tech as a key element in human-computer interaction, according to Gizmag. Haptic ‘language’ is currently creating a big spike in interest on three separate fronts: virtual reality, wearable computing and touchscreen technology. Mathias Nordvall, a cognitive scientist and game designer at Linkoping University in Sweden, has gone a step further by creating a video game for deaf or blind people based on haptic technology. The game, Pong, uses no graphics or audio, but touch and feel and feedback allows handicapped users to play like a normal person. Wearable technology like smartwatches such as the upcoming Apple Watch will use haptics to give you tactile sensations on your wrist. There are others who are experimenting with haptic cues in steering wheels of cars for enhanced safety and with tactile feedback built into touchscreens for more natural interactions. In gaming, haptics is a fast-growing field, thanks to the rise of virtual reality and the desire of players to feel just as viscerally as they see and hear their virtual environments. Haptic technology is also helping to train the next generation of surgeons and improving simulations in the industrial sector for pilots and large machine operators. Even the clothing retail industry could gain from haptic technology by allowing users to ‘feel’ the texture of clothes for sale online. We could be seeing the creation of new industries that were previously thought of as not feasible or realistic.