Humans are rather emotional creatures. We rely heavily on our five senses to interact with the world around us, drinking things in with our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. We’re also a touchy-feely bunch, and it turns out, we’re really quite fond of pushing buttons. It’s that whole tactile feeling.
The problem is, with technology trying to digitize everything, the human sense of touch is literally being taken out of our hands, as we all swipe at tiny screens with no texture. But not if the haptic pushers have their way. Haptics is a technology that provides mechanical feedback through the use of vibrations to simulate specific events, surfaces and effects through a screen.
Humans naturally perceive surfaces and pressure through a set of somatic sensors under the skin, which literally gives us our “sense of touch.” Human tactile sensitivity ranges from 1 – 1000 Hz, but is most sensitive under ~300 Hz.
As it turns out, however, the same effect of moving your finger across a surface can also be achieved by moving the surface beneath your finger, and that’s what haptics is all about.
Haptics can simulate different surfaces and effects by varying the shape, frequency, amplitude, duration and direction of a vibration, which is then picked up by the sensors in human skin and interpreted by the brain. Get the vibration and frequency right, and you can simulate the “feeling” of almost anything.
Speaking at a company technology day in San Jose this week, Eric Siegel, touch business development manager at Texas Instruments, said that studies showed that haptics not only improved typing efficiency, but also gave people the emotional satisfaction of tactile feedback that is pleasing to our brains.
“We’re retrofitting the tech environment to incorporate touch,” he explained, noting that making technology more tactile was really just another avenue of communication that hasn’t been utilized.
“If you touch it or it touches you, it can use haptics,” he said, explaining that this held true for a plethora of consumer devices from personal navigation systems to home automation, cameras, printers and more.
TI started working on haptics about two years ago, and since then, the unit has come up with a product known as the Piezo, an tiny actuator between 0.5mm and 3mm in size that creates vibrations by attaching directly to the screen or by using a mass, either “localized” or “whole-body” vibration.
When a voltage is applied, piezo-electric material quickly moves some distance, with a response time of less than 1ms, without the use of magnetic fields.
A little bit of haptics is good, in that it allows one to know that the machine did in fact get your input, but beyond that it is a lot more stuff to fail and waste power, all to appease those without the ability to focus long enough to understand that something is happening. Just a lot more hardware to consume both resources and engineering talent. But it tends toward "product differentiation", the mother of many evils.
When this technology becomes advanced what can be made? My imagination is by combining with a 3D projection TV which projects in space, viewers can go into this space and feel themselves very much as if they are there.
If haptics technology sophisticated enough to give a sensation of texture is to become a regular feature of mobile devices, there will have to be a standardisation process.
Drawing your finger across a virtual surface must feel the same everywhere: high-resolution haptics won't capture its market if the same command makes one device seem like smooth concrete, and another like coarse sandpaper.
That's not going to be easy. Manufacturers will be using different technologies, and yet the programmers will need to rely on a reliable frequency range, and the ability to control depth of oscillation, and ideally also the area being vibrated.
Haptics has the potential to open whole new markets and app types. It's now up to manufacturers to collaborate to make sure it can function reliably and consistently, so that developers can risk new, large, ground-breaking projects.
Purpose of digital technology was to simplify product design. Will introduction of haptics technology makes trends in reverse direction? For small product, it may be better to use conventional buttons or switches.
An alternative haptics technology uses electromagnetic rather than piezo exciters. Bending-wave haptic feedback devices accurately simulate the feeling of a mechanical button press, over multiple levels if desired, and can deliver the response to anywhere on a panel or touch screen or be programmed to give a specific response at a specific set of co-ordinates. For example, it's possible to simulate a dual level button of the type used on cameras - pressing part way to focus then a little further to take a shot. A further advantage of this technology is that the same exciters can simultaneously deliver an audio response from a flat panel to replace the eliminate for separate loud speakers in consumer electronic products. A touch screen can become a speaker, for example. Bending wave haptics is touch technology agnostic - it can be used with capacitive, resistive or piezoelectric touch screens.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.