Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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