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

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

Recent Posts

July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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