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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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