Haptics: Can You Feel the Buzz?
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Nov 29 08:45:00 GMT 2004

The technology of touch is moving into the mobile arena. Get ready for some good vibrations.

Mobile devices are pretty good at conveying information to your ears and eyes, thanks to advanced speakers and color displays. But they do a poor job communicating with your other three senses. There have been some gimmicky advances in the area of smell, such as an odor-detecting chip in a phone that sounds an alarm when it detects a disagreeable odor, and a phone attachment that emits a fragrance when someone is calling, but they're silly curiosities at best. I haven't come across anyone doing work on a mobile phone that deals with taste and flavor, which is probably a good thing.

The real possibility in mobile sensory interfaces is in touch. People learn a great deal from their environment -- often without realizing it -- from their sense of touch, and the industry is starting to wake up to the idea that the technology of touch can add another layer of information to mobile communications.

Why Touch is Important

Haptics (from the Greek term "to touch") is already a money-making technology in the gaming, medical, graphics and automotive industries. Typically, computers don't provide tactile feedback and must resort to sounds and visual indicators to represent things you'd normally feel in the real world. But haptics bring physicality back into the digital domain by generating the sensations of pressure, temperature, vibration and texture. Anyone who has picked up a game controller with a well-built rumble mechanism knows how much better the game-playing experience becomes when they can feel explosions, potholes in the road, collisions and so on.

Doctors and nurses in training can learn what it feels like to insert a catheter into a patient's arm by practicing on a dummy equipped with a force-feedback haptic simulator that lets them feel the pop of a needle puncturing a vein. Animators can use a 3-D armature device to mold a virtual clay lump on a computer monitor. And if you get a chance to take a ride in a late-model BMW, check out the iDrive knob, which can switch from smooth rotation to stepped clicks depending on the particular function it's controlling so that information is imparted to drivers' fingers instead of forcing them to take their eyes off the road.

Vibrate Mode on Steroids

Immersion, based in Silicon Valley, is the leader in haptic feedback technology (Haptic feedback is a different animal than haptic input, an equally interesting technology that uses human touch as input, as opposed to output). Immersion's been making touch-based systems for cars, games, and computers for ten years and now has its sights set on mobile phones. Immersion's VibeTonz is a development platform that uses a phone's ordinary vibrate motor to enhance navigation, ringtones, chat and games. For instance, developers can use VibeTonz to make each item on a scrolling list click distinctively. Or they can add "kisses," "slaps," and "purrs" to chat emoticons. Or they can make the phone buzz and pulse along to the melody of a ringtone. The only thing that a phone manufacturer needs to add to its phone is a ten-cent amplifier, which enables the vibrator to buzz in a variety of ways. Samsung has announced that it will be the first to offer a VibeTonz phone later this year.

VibeTonz is only the first step into a world of touch-enhanced mobilty. In research labs around the world, scientists are looking into ways that will change the way you feel -- and feel about -- mobiles. At Nokia Research, Jukka Linjama and Topi Kaaresoja added a small acceleration sensor to a phone to create a Pong-like game that a user controls by tapping the phone either horizontally or vertically. The user gets feedback from different vibration patterns. In a paper presented at the NordiCHI human-computer interaction conference, they wrote that the synchronized combination of graphics and vibrations "creates a kind of a kinesthetic illusion of a soft ball being tapped and bouncing inside the device. In informal evaluations most users rated this illusion very natural, impressive, and enjoyable."

Reach Out and Touch Something

Looking farther out on the horizon, haptics researchers are developing texture simulators that create the illusion of corduroy, sandpaper, polished wood, beard stubble or any other textured surface. A prototype device, called The WHaT (Wireless Haptic Texture Sensor), developed at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, is a cordless pen that imparts the feeling of being run over different types of surfaces.

The possible mobile applications for such a technology are intriguing. Imagine a phone that feels different depending on who is calling you, or the m-commerce possibilities as well -- do you want the leather or corduroy coat you're looking at on your phone's screen? With haptic texture generation you'll be able to get a feel for the fabric by swiping your finger over the display.

The nerve endings in your skin have close to 20 different kinds of sensors on them, representing billions of years of evolutionary refinement. It's time to take advantage of them.