July 24, 2008

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Come on, feel the geek
Haptic feedback speaks to a third sense
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

When it comes to entertainment and user interfaces, it’s usually all about sight and sound. Save the tangible rumbling of a subwoofer at a particular loud and deep part of a movie soundtrack in the theater, or that same theater’s brief experimentation with Smell-O-Vision, your eyes and ears have been the ones processing information from screens and speakers. And heck, you’ve been lucky to get even sound from your portable electronics without headphones.

But with the recent explosion in touchscreens, developers have realized that the sense of touch can be just as important in the operation of devices. It’s not so much the content itself that needs a tactile component, but the direct interaction with the gadget: you need to feel something to reassure you that your button press has actually done something. Real, plastic keys accomplish this automatically; touch-screen buttons, not so much.

Haptic feedback is the nerdy term for giving a user some kind of tactile response. Many folks’ first exposure in the home might have been the Playstation console’s DualShock controller, which employed motors to make the thing vibrate when, say, your spaceship got hit with a laser blast or your rally car bumped up against a competitor. Even a cell phone’s “vibrate” function might be considered a crude form of haptic feedback.

Much more precise feedback is required to let you know that you’ve just successfully hit the “t” key on your virtual touchscreen keyboard. A visual cue (like the button changing color) can help, as can an annoying little “bip!” sound. They don’t feed as well into the unconscious as some sort of physical sensation into your fingers, though.

Some newer cell phones, like Samsung’s Instinct, now do a tiny little buzz when you press on-screen buttons. It’s still rough, because in most cases, the whole phone buzzes. You might’ve hit the “t” or you might’ve hit the “q” — but hey, you know you’ve hit something.

Not only is vibration feedback a kludgy, imprecise solution, it’s also tough to implement. Not for any technical reason, but because its patent holder, Immersion, is pretty strict on its licensing. The Playstation 3 had no vibration feedback upon its release because the Sony hadn’t gotten the rights to include it yet.

A newer form of haptic feedback is in development by those Finnish geniuses over at Nokia. Their concept, dubbed Haptikos, puts a film over the entire touchscreen. The film is sensitive to changes in voltage and can actually be raised or lowered miniscule amounts. When you press a “key,” the film can go up or down to feel bumpy and then indented, just like a real key.

Whether the technology ever sees the light of day is up for debate. Apple submitted its own patent ideas months ago, and they didn’t show up in the latest iPhone. Apple’s design calls for actual bumps of some kind placed under the screen. Maybe they’d be there all the time, or maybe they’d rise up when the on-screen keyboard is activated; the patent application diagrams weren’t exactly crystal clear.

In any case, if you’ve held off buying a touchscreen device precisely because you like the clickety-clack of real buttons, your worries might be close to obsolete. Stay tuned.