Haptic Technology Is Making Digital Screens More Tactile

We can look at a beautiful picture of our online purchase, but we can never touch it as we could if we were in store. As Rachel England discovers, haptic technology is moving fast to bridge the gap.

Want to feel before you buy? Haptic technology is changing how we shop online

E-commerce retailers are acutely aware of the limited nature of screen shopping and are investing in technology that promises to simulate touching the item as if you were in store.

This kind of haptic technology, while often regarded in the same futuristic sphere as virtual and augmented reality, has been around for decades. Its earliest application saw it used in military flight simulators in the 1960s, and it wasn’t long before it made its way to the consumer market.

Want to feel before you buy? Haptic technology is changing how we shop online

E-commerce retailers are acutely aware of the limited nature of screen shopping and are investing in technology that promises to simulate touching the item as if you were in store.

This kind of haptic technology, while often regarded in the same futuristic sphere as virtual and augmented reality, has been around for decades. Its earliest application saw it used in military flight simulators in the 1960s, and it wasn’t long before it made its way to the consumer market.

The first immersive experiences

According to The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond by Mark JP Wolf (Greenwood), Sega’s 1976 video game Moto-Cross (rebranded as Fonz) was the first to feature vibro-tactile feedback, letting players feel the rumble of their motorcycle as it crashed across the bumpy terrain and into other racers. 

Soon, all consoles touted this kind of immersive gaming experience and, in 2007, the technology moved to mobile devices, where physical mobile phone buttons were replaced with virtual keys that ‘vibrated’ on touch.

“We’ve come a long way since these early examples,” says Heather Macdonald Tait, formerly of Bristol-based Ultrahaptics. “Now, companies everywhere are integrating the technology into all kinds of offerings. Touch is a sense that we take for granted, but it’s absolutely critical in everything we do.”
 

The first immersive experiences

According to The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond by Mark JP Wolf (Greenwood), Sega’s 1976 video game Moto-Cross (rebranded as Fonz) was the first to feature vibro-tactile feedback, letting players feel the rumble of their motorcycle as it crashed across the bumpy terrain and into other racers. 

Soon, all consoles touted this kind of immersive gaming experience and, in 2007, the technology moved to mobile devices, where physical mobile phone buttons were replaced with virtual keys that ‘vibrated’ on touch.

“We’ve come a long way since these early examples,” says Heather Macdonald Tait, formerly of Bristol-based Ultrahaptics. “Now, companies everywhere are integrating the technology into all kinds of offerings. Touch is a sense that we take for granted, but it’s absolutely critical in everything we do.”
 

Subconscious processing of touch

According to Macdonald Tait, touch is processed 1.7 times faster than our other senses, and yet we experience it on a very subconscious level. “Think about filling your car with petrol,” she says. “That ‘clunk’ you feel when the tank is full reaches your brain much quicker than a visual or aural cue. And yet you’re probably not consciously focused on the feeling of the pump in your hands during the process.” 

But it’s subconscious stimulus that helps to keep us immersed in our environments, she says, which is why haptic technology is able to create such enriching experiences, whether that’s turning the pages of a magazine on a tablet or picking a lock in a video game.

“The technology draws on four types of mechanoreceptors in the skin. These give the brain information about touch, pressure, vibration and tension,” Macdonald Tait explains. “Tweaking these different factors allows us to create haptic experiences that are far more sophisticated than the simple vibration you get with games consoles and phones.”
 

Subconscious processing of touch

According to Macdonald Tait, touch is processed 1.7 times faster than our other senses, and yet we experience it on a very subconscious level. “Think about filling your car with petrol,” she says. “That ‘clunk’ you feel when the tank is full reaches your brain much quicker than a visual or aural cue. And yet you’re probably not consciously focused on the feeling of the pump in your hands during the process.” 

But it’s subconscious stimulus that helps to keep us immersed in our environments, she says, which is why haptic technology is able to create such enriching experiences, whether that’s turning the pages of a magazine on a tablet or picking a lock in a video game.

“The technology draws on four types of mechanoreceptors in the skin. These give the brain information about touch, pressure, vibration and tension,” Macdonald Tait explains. “Tweaking these different factors allows us to create haptic experiences that are far more sophisticated than the simple vibration you get with games consoles and phones.”
 

The future of haptic technology

This increasingly detailed research, coupled with pioneering innovation, means that haptic technology is set to offer a whole world of exciting touch-based experiences in the near future. Companies are working on developing haptic textures, which means, for example, that you’ll be able to ‘feel’ a suede jacket through your device before you buy it. 

This technology, already being showcased at conventions and tech fairs around the world, uses next-level haptic feedback, such as sophisticated vibration, to trick your mechanoreceptors into convincing your brain that you’re running your fingers along a textured surface rather than a smooth screen.

 

The future of haptic technology

This increasingly detailed research, coupled with pioneering innovation, means that haptic technology is set to offer a whole world of exciting touch-based experiences in the near future. Companies are working on developing haptic textures, which means, for example, that you’ll be able to ‘feel’ a suede jacket through your device before you buy it. 

This technology, already being showcased at conventions and tech fairs around the world, uses next-level haptic feedback, such as sophisticated vibration, to trick your mechanoreceptors into convincing your brain that you’re running your fingers along a textured surface rather than a smooth screen.

 

"You’ll be able to ‘feel’ a suede jacket through your device before you buy it"

“And then there’s completely hands-free haptics – technology that uses air pressure and sound waves to create the sensation of touch, even when you’re not touching anything at all,” says Macdonald Tait. “Consumer-focused haptic technology has until now largely been confined to a screen or a surface, but that’s not how we experience touch in the real world. The challenge is making it truly three dimensional.”

Macdonald Tait envisions these concepts becoming a part of everyday life within as little as five years. Indeed, advances in virtual and augmented reality are progressing quickly, as is consumer adoption – research firm CCS Insight believes more than six times as many VR headsets will be sold in 2022 as in 2018, while data analyst Statista predicts the combined VR and AR market will be worth $215 billion by 2021. 

It won’t be long until the haptic touch-screen keypads we know and use today are as retro as the first vibrating joysticks. 

"You’ll be able to ‘feel’ a suede jacket through your device before you buy it"

“And then there’s completely hands-free haptics – technology that uses air pressure and sound waves to create the sensation of touch, even when you’re not touching anything at all,” says Macdonald Tait. “Consumer-focused haptic technology has until now largely been confined to a screen or a surface, but that’s not how we experience touch in the real world. The challenge is making it truly three dimensional.”

Macdonald Tait envisions these concepts becoming a part of everyday life within as little as five years. Indeed, advances in virtual and augmented reality are progressing quickly, as is consumer adoption – research firm CCS Insight believes more than six times as many VR headsets will be sold in 2022 as in 2018, while data analyst Statista predicts the combined VR and AR market will be worth $215 billion by 2021. 

It won’t be long until the haptic touch-screen keypads we know and use today are as retro as the first vibrating joysticks. 

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