Haptics: The Next Frontier

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Haptics is simply a form of interaction through touch. In a broader context, the term covers everything from touching a person in order to communicate, such as a firm handshake, to the way we can recognize an object by touch. In technology, the term haptics is generally used to refer to devices that simulate organic touch and provide feedback, often through touch screen technology.

As in so many areas of technology, the games industry has jumped ahead in exploiting haptics. For example, gamers have long been used to the feeling of depressing a button to give instructions, whether on a keyboard, mouse, or game console controller. Early screen-based games didn’t provide touch engagement beyond this, but newer systems are making games more immersive by providing “haptic feedback” — specifically, making the relevant section of the screen vibrate. Though this doesn’t feel the same as pushing a button, it’s still enough of a response to close the mental loop of action and response.

The possibilities for using haptic technology at points of sale are almost limitless, and will only grow as the technology itself advances. For now it’s largely being used for psychological effect. For example, Visa is experimenting with a range of feedback cues when people complete payments, adding a touch screen vibration pattern to existing on-screen animations and sounds.

The popular theory is that this will make the process feel complete and even provide a sense of reliability. Despite the convenience of contactless payments, people miss the tactile experience that comes from typing in a PIN or even signing a check. Having the screen (and, in turn, the card) vibrate when the payment is complete can give the buyer a cue that the transaction has been completed securely, subtly providing an extra level of confidence in the payment process.

Mid Air Haptics

Mid –air haptics is the ability to interact with objects via a virtual touchable interface. Ultrahaptics is pioneering this field. They “create the sensation of touch in mid air”.

“Ultrahaptics’ patented algorithms control ultrasound waves to create haptic sensations in mid-air – shapes and objects that cannot be seen, but can be felt. No controllers or wearables are needed: the “virtual touch” technology uses ultrasonic transducers to project sensations directly onto the user’s hands.”

The possibilities around this kind of technology is staggering.  In particular, because this does not require any additional gear to be worn to work properly, the uptake will be frictionless. Compare that to failed attempts at new technologies, like 3D glasses.

Teslasuit is making a full body suit that will provide the wearer with a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

“The Teslauit haptic library provides a range of sensations to targeted areas across the body including simultaneously stimulating multiple muscle groups.”

What’s Next?

For the Point of Sale market, in the long term, haptics may advance to the point that they replicate the physical feeling of an item itself. For example, some stores don’t display all of their stock, instead asking shoppers to browse a catalog, then retrieving the item from a warehouse or storage room. With haptics, computerized payment screens could not only show slideshows and video of the items, but also let the user virtually touch them to get a better idea of their design, weight and style. Eventually they will be able to try the clothes on, use the tools or instruments, and really try before they buy.

For other markets, we are only beginning to see the potential. As with so much of new technology, science fiction has already done a lot of the groundwork in terms of possibilities. The upcoming movie Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, takes the concept of the haptic suit to its ultimate conclusion, an immersive, all encompassing, experience inside a VR “oasis”.

The challenge for the industry now is to explore the middle ground between the simple haptics of today and the cutting-edge ideas of the future, harnessing haptic feedback in more sophisticated ways without having to wait for tomorrow’s technology.

Let me know how we can help create your next incredible product.