Key takeaways

  • Integrating hardware and software, haptic feedback technology creates physical sensation out of virtual objects or environments.
  • Achieving prominence in gaming, haptics are undergoing a flurry of development across multiple sectors and devices.
  • Immersing users completely in digital worlds, haptics are unlocking a whole new realm of experience design.

The way we’ve been interfacing with digital devices has been dominated by three primary senses: sight, sound and one-way touch. Take any trip on public transport and most commuters are likely interacting with their smartphones through viewing content, listening to audio, or tapping away at screens.

That all may change as haptic feedback technology – a system that simulates physical responses to digital environments – continues to develop. While it’s been around for as long as many of our most popular electronic devices (and a core component of them), its steady advancement is unlocking new capabilities in the realms of spatial sensation.

What defines haptic feedback technology, how is it currently being deployed and what potential applications await in the future?

Point
of contact

The term ‘haptic’ derives from the Greek haptikos, meaning the ability to touch or grasp. In technology, a haptic interface communicates physical sensations to the operator such as vibrations or pulses, creating an illusion of interaction with a simulated object. These sensations can be both tactile (how the surface or texture of the virtual object feels) or kinaesthetic (the sense of the object’s overall weight and dimensions)1.

Used in this manner, a haptic system vastly improves immersion in digital environments. In more practical applications it can also provide granular control over robotics or machinery, intuitively responding to the fine motor movements of an operator’s hands or fingers.

Integrating software and hardware, a haptic feedback system takes the programmed dimensions and characteristics of virtual objects and expresses them as physical forces. The hardware takes many forms, including smartphones, game controllers, aircraft joysticks or surgery robotics. Recent prototypes have also involved ultrasound technology, enabling haptic stimuli to transfer through the air2.

A haptic
history

Research into haptic feedback extends back into the 20th century3, yet it wasn’t until the video games boom of the late 1970s that the technology went mainstream. Haptic motors installed in arcade game controllers vibrated when an impact was simulated, for instance the steering wheel of a racing game shuddering every time the player’s car hit an object. By the 1990s, haptics were incorporated into the handheld controllers of home gaming consoles.

Currently, the most widespread digital device using haptic systems are smartphones, which issue vibrational alerts and simulate tactile key tapping. In the case of Apple’s iPhone, haptics have also recently replaced the mechanical home button and provide added ‘3D touch’ functionality to the smartphone’s screen.

Commercial
applications

The reducing costs of hardware and widespread usage of haptic-enabled digital devices has seen a flurry of activity to adapt and optimise the technology. Last year a digital advertising agency released a haptic-augmented video car advertisement for Android smartphones4, using feedback to recreate revving engines and a feel of acceleration as it played.

Haptic-equipped footwear has also been trialed, with a budget airline experimenting with ‘smart shoes’5. Using targeted vibrations, the shoes provide turn-by-turn directions, reducing the reliance on smartphone maps for tourists exploring abroad and improving the travel experience.

Towards
a haptic future

Haptic feedback’s breakout moment might still be around the corner. If paired with virtual reality, the technology could completely immerse users in a digital world. The possibilities are almost endless: imagine entering a virtual dressing room and feeling the tactile sensations of each item of clothing – the softness of silk or the weight of a coat. Or pairing haptic gloves and VR to visualise and interact with streams of data, allowing a data analyst to identify and locate different patterns, trends or anomalies by feel.

Similarly, haptics could be a staple in education. School students studying physics or microbiology could learn about these subjects in a truly hands-on fashion, using VR and haptics to both see and feel the structure of proteins, molecules or changing physical forces such as gravity on other planets6.

Touching
the void

It’s not yet clear if there are natural limits to haptic feedback. While the technology can effectively communicate senses of texture, weight and heft, can more subtle characteristics be captured – such as moisture or brittleness?

Regardless, haptic feedback remains on the frontier of experience design, potentially rewriting the ways we interact between the digital and physical worlds. It provides a whole new dimension, engrossing users and making the intangible tangible. Leveraging software and hardware with intuitive feedback, the future looks decidedly more touchy-feely.