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How new haptics tech will move you

Mike Elgan | April 28, 2015
The illusion of haptic vibrations is magnified when combined with other factors. Call it 'haptics plus.'

apples force touch trackpa
Apple's new MacBook has a trackpad feature called Force Touch that gives the illusion of clicking when nothing is actually clicking. Credit: Apple

Now that the Apple Watch is finally out in the wild, millions will be experiencing the next big thing for user interfaces. Call it "haptics plus."

Haptics normally involves actuators, or tiny vibration motors, to either convey information, create a touch illusion of some kind, or both. (If you've ever played a console game, you've felt the vibrations in the controller designed to simulate action in the game.)

The new trend in haptic feedback is to combine haptics with "something else" to crank up the illusion of action, motion, texture and even the illusion of touching something that isn't there.

In the Apple Watch, and in the latest MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops, that something else is a feature that Apple calls "Force Touch," which is the use of pressure as a gesture.

For example, when you press the corner of the touchpad in a new MacBook with medium pressure, it feels like a physical button is clicking. In fact, the trackpad isn't moving at all and nothing is clicking. It's all a very convincing illusion created by the combination of haptics with Force Touch (and often sound as well, such as the sound of clicking).

The Apple Watch enables comparable combinations of haptics, force and sound to create other convincing illusions. But these Apple examples of "haptics plus" are nothing compared with what Apple is planning next.

Combining haptics with temperature changes

A new Apple patent application that was published Thursday describes the addition of temperature changes to a haptic system to create new illusions.

The title on the application was "Touch Surface for Simulating Materials." The document describes what sounds to me like an advanced haptics actuator that can move horizontally, vertically or in both directions at the same time. These very fine and highly controlled vibrations would be combined with fast changes in temperature of the surface.

For example, when simulating a metal surface, the trackpad or touchscreen would go cold. When simulating a wood surface, it would be warmer. And even the grain of wood would be simulated.

This is achieved by registering both the movement of a finger across the screen, combined with the pressure of the finger. As the finger passes over a ridge in the virtual wood grain, the vibrations would change at that moment to simulate the feeling of touching the uneven wood grain surface, and these vibrations would vary based on the force of the touching -- just as the actual sensation on your finger would vary if you were touching a real piece of wood.

 

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