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haptic technologyHaptics is the technology of touch. In the context of a virtual environment, it would mean being able to touch and feel something that literally isn’t there, but that’s certainly not its only use. From gaming and virtual reality to 3D modelling and making computers more accessible – virtual surgery, driving simulators in which you can actually feel the surface and conditions of the road, swinging a virtual sword and feeling the motion as it smashes against the enemy’s armor, the texture of paper or moleskin on a touchscreen display – this is haptic technology at its most amazing, and the implications are far reaching.

The Past & Present

My first experience of haptic technology was at a consumer technology show about 10 years ago – it was pretty new then, and sadly things haven’t progressed an awful lot since then – but they have got a lot cheaper, and we’re on the cusp of a great revolution – so it’s about time you knew about what’s coming. The toy I was privileged to have a play with was a pen for 3D modelling. The pen floated in 3D space, attached to a base unit with a single movable arm. By simply moving the pen around, you could move an on-screen 3D modelling or sculpting tool.

But the amazing part of this pen was that when your tool hit the 3D object, it would stop, right there, preventing you from moving any further in that direction. By moving your tool around the surface of the object, you could literally feel the shape of it. Though immensely fascinating, this didn’t help my modelling skills one bit. Give me a lump of real clay and I’d do just as bad – but in the right hands, it makes 3D modelling a thoroughly more realistic experience.

Here’s a video of a similar device in action, though obviously it’s difficult to portray the haptic feedback in a video.

This idea was then extended to the entire hand, as this video from 2010 demonstrates. With a 3D display, the glove wearer can physically interact with a virtual object using haptic technology, touching what isn’t there.

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You think that’s cool? That’s nothing. How about not having to wear a glove at all, yet still being able to feel a holographic object? Yes, exactly like Minority Report or Iron Man. The system uses ultrasonic jets to project the sensations combined with traditional holography.

Haptic technology is also known as “tactile” feedback, but force feedback in gaming controllers is also a form of haptic technology – called “kinesthetic” –  in which the user experiences movement such as the resistance a steering wheel might give when turning. High end joysticks and steering wheel controllers on the market today provide feedback to the gamer by vibrating or resisting motion just as a real car or aeroplane might.

Nearly all modern consoles include at least a basic vibration for the sensation of firing a gun, though the effect isn’t at all realistic (this is probably a good thing though, as the actual pushback from a lot of guns would probably break our untrained arms).

The WiiRemote was the first console pointing device to implement haptic feedback for general user interfaces. The remote would “buzz” and snap to a menu element when you hovered over it. If you’ve used a Wii, there’s a chance you haven’t even noticed it – it’s such a natural enhancement and a great example of haptic technology done right.

Launched this year and still seeking partners for integration, Vivitouch have developed a highly responsive virtual muscle, able to depict vibrations at a far great level of realism. They’ve branched into two technologies, one for headphones for more realistic audio, and one into mobile devices for more immersive gaming.

Here’s a promotional video of the gaming side, which is currently only available for iPod Touch 4th Gen and a small assortment of compatible games.

The Future

Tactus has shown us their vision of a haptic future, one in which smart phone buttons physically emerge from the screen as required; creating a dynamic physical keyboard on a standard touchscreen. It’s an impressive feat, no doubt, but how useful might they actually be?

The niche for these devices might eventually be carved in accessibility features – making touch screens and technology in general more useful for blind consumers. One can easily imagine how such a haptic interface could display braille to read text elements, for instance – external devices currently handle this task, but combining the two would make a lot of sense.

Immersion and Senseg have taken a different approach to emulating tactile feedback. Instead of physically altering a device, they use electronic currents to generate the feel of a surface (Senseg calls these “Tixels”).

At the launch of the iPad 3 last year, rumors abounded that the device would include either Senseg’s haptic feedback tech or a proprietary system Apple had also claimed a patent on (using piezeo-electric actuators instead of Senseg’s electrical fields), but neither have come to fruition just yet. It’s likely we’ll see more of these in mobile devices in the immediate future.

Tactical Haptics have most recently demoed a kinesthetic feedback controller built around a Razer Hydra motion peripheral – it’s able to accurate simulate the feel of slicing a sword or the swinging motion of a flail – so it’s easy to see how it could really make for a more immersive gaming experience, especially when combined with the Oculus Rift Everything You Want To Know About The Oculus Rift Dev-Kit Everything You Want To Know About The Oculus Rift Dev-Kit The future is here - the Oculus Rift has finally begun shipping. It's early days yet, but if you're one of the lucky few who backed or pre-ordered the dev kit, here's a collection of... Read More  VR headset.

As you can see, haptic technology already plays a part in our lives, but it’s another immersive technology that – like virtual reality – has so many as-yet unrealised applications. At least now, you’ll know what it is when it gets here. Like most new technologies, I expect it’ll be used for gaming first!

Have you had a chance to play with some haptic or force-feedback devices, and if so, what are your thoughts on them? Did they make the experience more immersive, or make you better at the task – or was it just a weird distraction, or a gimmick?

  1. Rushinth John
    April 29, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    This was so refreshing!!!

  2. Scott M
    April 25, 2013 at 10:57 am

    One of my physicians in the Oncology area performs surgery on patients a few 100-2000 miles away using the robotic gloves.He is able to handle difficult cases that would have missed out on having the very best surgeon in the field operate on them in a timely manner.He loves the system.He feels it allows himself to be much more precise and is able to handle a higher load of patients and perform many more surgeries.With the ability to see in a clearer manner and make surer more perfect cuts without assaulting existing healthy tissue the patients improve their odds of successfully winning the fight against the cancer.The impressive success rate speaks for itself.

  3. Scutterman
    April 25, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I suddenly feel like I'll be spending money when the Reactive Grip launches the kickstarter. I already have a Rift on the way.

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