Tactile feedback is nothing new
It’s been used in telecommunications and in entertainment for decades, and it became a standard feature in the late 1990s in mobile phones and video games – where vibrations alert you to new messages or help you “feel” the forces exerted on your avatar. Haptic technology has been very much a bit player in the fields that it’s infiltrated, though, and only now are we seeing it begin to take its place alongside visual and audio tech as a key element in human-computer interaction.
Smartwatches such as the upcoming Apple Watch are embracing haptics to give you turn-by-turn directions. Researchers, meanwhile, are experimenting with haptic cues built into the steering wheel of cars for enhanced safety, and with tactile feedback built into touchscreens and public maps for more natural-feeling interactions.
Haptics enable deafblind people to browse the web (thanks to Morse Code) or even to play video games. In the gaming space, haptics is a fast-growing field thanks to the rise of virtual reality and the desire of players to feel just as viscerally as they see and hear their virtual environments. Haptic technology is also helping to train the next generation of surgeons, and improving simulations in the industrial sector for pilots and large machine operators.
Before we get into any of that, let’s step back a moment and look at what haptic technology is. In most cases it uses a kind of motor called an actuator to convert electrical, hydraulic or pneumatic energy into vibrations, which can be managed and controlled by software that determines the duration, frequency, and amplitude.
Smartphones typically use haptic technology for alerts and notifications, as well as for subtle feedback as you type messages or dial numbers on their touchscreens. Video game controllers use haptics now in the same way that they did almost two decades ago with the Nintendo 64 rumble pack and PlayStation DualShock gamepad – to lend a tangibility, felt through your hands gripping the controller, to an explosion or crash or a rough surface that you’re driving over.
But there’s a lot more that haptics can do, both at the lower resolutions of feedback offered by an Xbox or PlayStation controller (which amounts to little more than an on/off switch with dimmer controls for each of their two actuators) and at the higher resolutions that the latest haptic technology can provide (which allows for feedback localized to specific coordinates and even, at the cutting-edge level, according to how hard you press on the surface).
Haptics look set to be the next big thing in our interactions with the digital world.
Read more: Haptic technology: The next frontier in video games, wearables, virtual reality, and mobile electronics
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