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How haptics will transform your gadgets

Mike Elgan | Sept. 23, 2014
Haptics have been part of consumer electronics for a long time. When you put your smartphone on "vibrate," or when you play first-person shooters on Xbox, those vibrations are called haptics.

Haptics have been part of consumer electronics for a long time. When you put your smartphone on "vibrate," or when you play first-person shooters on Xbox, those vibrations are called haptics.

Most people are familiar with broad applications of haptics such as those. In the case of a phone, it's usually just a utilitarian vibration that you're supposed to notice. In the case of the Xbox game, the haptics help create a richer experience that strengthens the illusion or immersion into a game.

Three new uses for haptics in widely used consumer devices are helping to usher in what Wired called a "Neo-Sensory Age" of incredible haptics-enabled experiences.

The first is for augmenting the tactile experience of using hardware. The second is for conveying pattern-specific information. The third is for communicating.

Here's how all three will transform the experience of using your gadgets.

Augmenting the tactile experience of using hardware

Amazon this week unveiled five new devices, including two e-book readers and three Android tablets. One of the most interesting of these is the company's new high-end reader, the Kindle Voyage.

To both the left and right of the Voyage's screen (which itself is textured to simulate the feeling of paper), Amazon designed touch zones for turning pages. A gentle squeeze on either side turns the page of the book you're reading in that direction, accompanied by a haptic vibration designed to substitute for the feeling of paper sliding across paper.

Likewise, the recently announced Apple Watch, which should ship next year, uses sophisticated haptics that add another dimension to the experience of using the hardware itself. As I detailed in this space last week, the Apple Watch has a "Taptics engine" for providing some interesting and targeted haptic feedback.

When you turn the Watch's crown, which Apple has sub-branded the Digital Crown, there's an instant and specific haptic vibration that dances on your wrist to enhance the experience of feeling the metal scrolling wheel. When you draw on the screen, press the big button under the crown or do any number of things, Apple's Taptic engine will send physical sensations to your wrist to accompany those actions in a way that reinforces to your brain what you're doing.

And Samsung recently unveiled its Smart MultiXpress series of multifunction printers, which have a tablet-like user interface with haptics designed to simulate on-screen controls.

These new devices are taking advantage of a new field of engineering called haptography, which involves recording physical sensations and later playing them back to simulate the action associated with the sensation that was recorded. Haptography is still in its infancy. As it becomes more sophisticated, our devices will gain a third dimension, with textures you can feel added to what you see and hear. Those cold, flat screens on mobile phones and tablets will come alive. All kinds of user interfaces, from car dashboards to refrigerator doors and TV remotes, will respond to our touch by touching us back. It will make these experiences more compelling and even addicting.

 

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