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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.

Conveying pattern-specific information

The Apple Watch also conveys pattern-specific information. For example, when using turn-by-turn directions in Apple Maps on the watch, the Taptics engine will give you directions by zapping the left or right side of the watch. You can follow the directions without looking at the watch, because the basic information is conveyed with vibration.

A new 2015 Mercedes hybrid car called the S550 includes haptic feedback that conveys critical information through your foot. Specifically, it sends a certain vibration through your foot that serves as a recommendation to back off on the gas pedal and coast to save juice or charge the battery. A different vibration tells you when the car switches from electric to gas.

Wearable computing devices like smartglasses (which, unlike Google Glass eyewear, look like regular glasses) will vibrate in specific ways to alert the user silently to different kinds of information.

Communicating

One of the most interesting applications of haptics is for communicating with other people. This is one of the most compelling uses for the Apple Watch. If you select a person from your list of favorites and then tap on the screen, the person you selected feels those taps (assuming, of course, that he or she is wearing an Apple Watch). You can also send your heartbeat to that person's Apple Watch, and you both will see a beating heart on the screens of your watches and feel a haptic simulation of your heartbeat.

This is similar to numerous devices from startups, such as the Tactilu bracelet, which transmits touch from one person to another. As one user touches her bracelet, the other user feels it on his.

You'll be able to "reach out and touch someone" with your smartphone as a matter of course. Whatever you touch on screen will be conveyed to the other person if he or she is holding a compatible phone. The generic vibration pattern of your phone's vibrate mode will be replaced by custom patterns of vibration for specific individuals, so you'll know who's calling without looking at the phone.

What's amazing about this isn't the practical laziness of having the information that a specific person is trying to reach you, but the psychological experience of near telepathy where you suddenly "feel" a person's presence.

How haptics improve the user experience

We are just at the beginning of the "Neo-Sensory Age." Over the next couple of years, extremely lifelike haptics will be integrated into all kinds of devices. It will reach the point where consumer expectations will compel vendors to integrate high-quality haptics into all of their gadgets.

As we've seen with the Apple Watch, this will be especially true of wearable computing devices. In fact, some devices will use haptics as their only user interface.

 

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