You might not have heard of haptic feedback, but it’s potentially one of the digital age’s most exciting developments. As we move towards an augmented reality (AR) future (with virtual reality’s, or VR’s, potential still hotly debated), it is increasingly being seen as a future centerpiece of AR apps and web browsing. Indeed, the word ‘haptics’ has recently been added to official dictionaries, reflecting its growing significance.
If you’re haptic and you know it
The word ‘haptic’ relates to touch. Specifically, it refers to the representation of physical objects through sensory stimulation, either by motion, vibration, or force. It first came to prominence in the 1990s, when games console controllers began vibrating in response to on-screen action – such as driving a race car through gravel beds instead of staying on the track. This is a basic form of haptic feedback – a motorized simulation of the senses you might expect while doing or experiencing something for real.
Haptic feedback provides a vital extra layer to augmented or virtual reality experiences, especially those taking place over the internet rather than in a fully-equipped studio. Historically, strapping on an AR or VR headset provided stimulation for two of your senses – sight and sound. Haptic feedback introduces touch as well. And the scope for touch-related sensory input is hard to quantify. It could transform online experiences as diverse as media streaming and medical consultations, with wearables potentially becoming as socially accepted as keyboards and speakers.
Under the thumb
Our hands are uniquely sensitive and flexible, so haptic technology often centers on gloves or handheld controllers. Microsoft has recently unveiled a Touch Rigid Controller or TORC. This compact handheld device replicates the elasticity of squeezed objects, through touch and force sensors. A dedicated thumb pad generates sensations of motion and resistance, allowing users to ‘feel’ texture and depth through a solid block of plastic. To give just two examples of potential uses, this might enable online shoppers to choose different clothing fabrics, or allow chefs to judge the coarseness of ground spices before placing a bulk order.
Although TORC is only a prototype at present, haptic bodysuits are already well established. These full-body outfits contain pulsing pressure points, controlled by sensors and cameras. In a game of Laser Tag, the suits detect a laser beam and produce a powerful vibration to simulate the effect of being ‘shot’. At home, the same effects could be accomplished by computer calculation rather than the need for light detection hardware. Pointing your ‘weapon’ at another player’s chest and pulling the trigger would instantly cause chest-mounted pads in their haptic suit to pulse, even from thousands of miles away. Online gaming would never be the same again.
Real-world implementations of haptic technology
Because it’s a method of communication rather than a technology or application, haptic feedback offers a new way to interact with machines. The human body has millions of pain receptors, as well as a remarkable sensitivity to pressure, texture, and temperature. Engaging these receptors (rather than just stimulating our eyes and ears) has a profound effect on user engagement and emotional reaction. Haptic technology could have positive effects on numerous industries, including simulator training and remotely conducted medical examinations. Processes which can presently only be done in situ could be conducted online with comparable accuracy and depth.
Finally, it’s easy to imagine how haptic technology may revolutionize gaming. Recent experiments involving vibrating pins (providing more localized alternatives to traditional pads) and air vortex rings (concentrated air gusts providing a sense of touch in free space) indicates a boundless scope for bringing virtual worlds into your living room.