Menus Subscribe Search
senseg3

The Touchy-Feely Future

• November 15, 2012 • 4:00 AM

Haptic technology is letting us get fresh with our devices. (But no, it’s not ready for porn yet.)

When I heard that we might soon be able to feel textures through screens, I wanted to play. So I badgered my way into a demonstration with Dave Rice, spokesperson for Senseg, a leading company in the emerging field of haptic (from the Greek meaning “to touch”) technology.

We met at a San Francisco coffee shop, where he pulled out a Toshiba tablet that Senseg’s people had hacked with haptics. Engineers had opened up the tablet and embedded their custom electronics. Then they covered the screen’s glass with a special coating that has particular electrical properties. They also developed software to control it all—a way for programmers to talk to it.

Good. Thanks. Can I try?

Rice had me hold the makeshift device by the corner and said, “On this first screen, all you do is move this ball around that circle.”

I definitely felt something. Lines were appearing under the “ball” I was moving, and I could vaguely sense them under my fingers. The more I touched the screen, the more the sensation increased.

“It’s actually that you’re going through a very quick tactile learning curve,” explained Rice. “You’re not expecting to feel something on smooth glass that feels like ridges.”

Next came a different image, a selection of four textures, which felt either coarser or finer to the touch. They had different degrees of friction, but all made my finger feel like there was something underneath stopping it from sliding around too much.

Cool. But what’s it good for?

A fistful of startups around the world think the answer is: lots. Senseg, which is based in Finland, hopes to enable tablet and smart-phone users to feel virtual keyboards on their devices, which should boost typing ease and accuracy. Competitors including TeslaTouch, a Pittsburgh-based project of Disney’s research arm, want to let users feel maps and characters in video games. And Immersion, which is based in San Jose but also has an office in Finland, is working on enabling surgeons to feel without touching.

Each company has its own method of simulating tactile sensation. Senseg’s founder, Ville Mäkinen, worked out his firm’s haptic effect in 2008, though it’s based on a phenomenon that’s been known since the 1950s. The electronics inside a Senseg-altered tablet generate a Coulomb force—an attraction between opposite charges that acts on the user’s finger. “Just as magnets’ positive and negative poles attract each other,” Rice said, “we’re doing the same thing. We’re attracting your finger to the screen for very short periods of time—one or two milliseconds—in different ways, so you feel the perception of a gap.”

I wondered whether haptic-empowered shoppers will be able to, say, compare the fabrics of shirts they’re considering buying on Amazon. The short answer: Not anytime soon. That same far-off timeframe, in case you were curious, also applies for feelable porn (sorry, Playboy).

But professor Robert Williams, a haptics expert at Ohio University, predicts that basic uses for screen-generated haptics will be widely available in three to five years. “It’s do-able right now,” says Williams, “but the cost is not minimal. If the cost was very low, it would be there already.”

Rice declined to speculate on when Senseg’s product might hit the mass market, citing the many hurdles between a one-off hand-built unit and a production run of millions. “Those are the challenges we’re working on with our partners,” he said.

Partners like whom? Rice played coy here too, confirming only that he’s talking about brands that already produce tablets on a mass scale. I called and emailed Apple, Google, Toshiba, Sony, Samsung, and Dell for comment. I got none. But the tech site TrustedReviews.com claims that Mäkinen has said, “We are currently working with a certain tablet maker based in Cupertino.” There’s only one of those, and its icon is a familiar bitten fruit.

After the Senseg demo, I went back to my usual devices. But their smooth screens now seem to lack something. My fingers glide along a uniformly smooth surface, feeling for something that’s not yet there.

Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews writes about thought leaders, environmental issues, food, and travel. She also reports for Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @avitalb.

More From Avital Andrews

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.