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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.

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