Tactile Touch Screens? They May Be Closer Than You Think

And by close I mean, “As near as the next Apple press conference.” [UPDATE 3/7/12: Nope.] Check out Pocket-lint for the whole scoop. Here’s an excerpt:

“The aim is to make a corrugated surface feel corrugated, a rough surface rough, a soft surface soft. The first products will ship by the end of this year and again Nokia is not Senseg’s first port of call. ‘We are currently working with a certain tablet maker based in Cupertino,’ reveals Senseg senior vice president Ville Mäkinen.”

That certain tablet maker from Cupertino that Makinen talked about is Apple. After all, how many others can you name?


Senseg describes the tech on their website with equal measures of “magic”.

“With Senseg, touch screens come alive with textures, contours and edges that users can feel. Using Senseg technology, makers of tablet computers, smart phones, and any touch interface device can deliver revolutionary user experiences with high fidelity tactile sensations. Your customers will Feel the Difference with Senseg,” it says.

“Unlike effects created by mechanical vibration and piezo solutions, Senseg is silent. Moreover, with Senseg application developers have precise control of the location and type of effect users experience. What’s more, Senseg technology scales from touch pads, smart phones and tablets to the largest touch screens without increasing manufacturing complexity.”

Haptic technology, allowing for tactile feedback on touch screens, is what Brisco County Jr. liked to call “a comin’ thing.” It allows the screen to provide friction, surface texture, and force feedback. Adding sensory stimulation is the next step in mobile technology, and haptics will be leading the wave.

How does it work? The Guardian has a good story with a concise explanation:

The technology uses the Coulomb force – the one which means you can rub a balloon against your hair and get it to stick. If you have two (fairly) nonconductive objects and you create a charge difference between them, there will be a measurable electrostatic force pulling them together. (When you rub the balloon on your head, electrons transfer from your hair, leaving your hair slightly positively charged, and the balloon negatively charged. Opposite charges then attract.)

In the case of Senseg and the tablets, the effect is generated by high-voltage electric fields effectively running in a grid across its surface. (The grid is actually embedded underneath the surface during the manufacturing process.)

“The Coulomb force pulls the finger towards the surface,” says Makinen. “Humans are basically large conductive objects. We use a high voltage – about one kilovolt – but zero current.” That means it’s completely safe: despite what signs by electricity pylons say, it’s current, not high voltage per se, that kills.

However, static forces are very weak, and so very difficult for humans to feel. So making the fields tangible requires an extra step. “We modelled systems to create frequencies that the hand is particularly sensitive to,” he says. Turning the electric field on and off at between 10Hz and 1KHz (Senseg keeps the figure a trade secret), alerts the sense of touch: “it’s effectively a modulation of the friction of the screen.” At its strongest, “we can make a finger stick and almost stop.” But, he adds, “that might not be a pleasant feeling.”

In the end, of course, it can only simulate texture and touch, but drawing upon senses beyond sight and sound is one of the ongoing quests of new technology. Will it feature in the iPad 3 launch later? I’ll go out on a limb and say with complete confidence, “maybe not,” but I’ve learned not to make bold negative predictions where Apple is concerned.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    If they could just make a touch screen that felt like it had real buttons, that would be great. (And extra bonus style points for the Brisco County, Jr. reference!)

  • victor

    Though I’ll take the retina display!

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Oddly enough, they were just calling it “The New iPad” today, not iPad 3.

    Gotta love Brisco! It should have lasted longer.

  • http://accordeonaire.blogspot.com/ Gary Chapin

    This might be the classic “what is the problem for which this is the solution.” Could just be me, though. I find things imbued with artificial sensory inputs to be a little creepy.

    I do find it interesting that the whole Wii experiment has had mixed reviews from gamers — didn’t you report on this? or was it something my son told me — because folks didn’t want their Resident Evil experience to be realistic … they want the artificial precision of thumbs and buttons. Authenticity can be a canard, not always desirable. Imagine if they added smell to porn.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    But Kinect has been very popular, and it’s even more immersive than Wii, so it’s less the level of realism and immersion than it is the habit of interacting with something in a particular way. Gamers don’t like Wii because they have an established habit of interacting with games in a certain way. Non-gamers love it because it’s a more natural way to control.

    As for the haptic technology, I can see it given dimensionality to buttons (as Victor mentions), providing contour controls for certain games, and allowing for certain kinds of tactile feedback in low light. You also have to try to think two steps ahead. Since my wife works with medical imaging, I know that mobile technology is going to become increasingly important in health care, and tactile feedback could play a role in that.

    My doubts about it are very simple: it has to be a monstrous power sump.

    PS: I’m not sure if you can write “pron” on Patheos, but let me just say…ick.