the touchy subject
After more than 20 years of research and development, are haptic
interfaces finally getting ready to enter the computing mainstream?
EVeR SINCe the first silent- mode cell phones started buzzing in our pockets a few years ago, many of us have unwittingly developed a
fumbling familiarity with haptics: technology that invokes our sense of touch.
Video games now routinely employ
force-feedback joysticks to jolt their
players with a sense of impending on-screen doom, while more sophisticated
haptic devices have helped doctors conduct surgeries from afar, allowed deskbound soldiers to operate robots in hazardous environments, and equipped
musicians with virtual violins.
Despite recent technological advances, haptic interfaces have made
only modest inroads into the mass
consumer market. Buzzing cell phones
and shaking joysticks aside, developers have yet to create a breakthrough
product—a device that would do for
haptics what the iPhone has done for
touch screens. The slow pace of market
acceptance stems partly from typical
new-technology growing pains: high
production costs, the lack of standard
application programming interfaces
(APIs), and the absence of established
user interface conventions. Those issues aside, however, a bigger question
looms over this fledgling industry:
What are haptics good for, exactly?
Computer scientists have been exploring haptics for more than two decades. Early research focused largely
on the problem of sensory substitution, converting imagery or speech
information into electric or vibratory
stimulation patterns on the skin. As
the technology matured, haptics found
new applications in teleoperator systems and virtual environments, useful
for robotics and flight simulator applications.
Today, some researchers think the
big promise of haptics may involve
moving beyond special-purpose ap-
plications to tackle one of the defin-
ing challenges of our age: information
overload. For many of us, a growing re-
liance on screen-based computers has
long since overtaxed our visual senses.
But the human mind comes equipped
to process information simultaneously
from multiple inputs—including the
sense of touch. “People are not biologi-
cally equipped to handle the assault
of information that all comes through
one channel,” says Karon MacLean, a
professor of computer science at the
University of British Columbia.
for exploiting that capability because
it’s already a background sense.”
As people consume more informa-
tion on mobile devices, the case for hap-
tics seems to grow stronger. “As screen
size has become smaller, there is inter-
est in offloading some information that
would have been presented visually to
other modalities,” says Jones, who also
sees opportunities for haptic interfaces
embedded in vehicles as early warning
systems and proximity indicators, as
well as more advanced applications in
surgery, space, undersea exploration,
and military scenarios.
While those opportunities may be
real, developers will first have to overcome a series of daunting technical
obstacles. For starters, there is currently no standard API for the various
force feedback devices on the market,
although some recent efforts have resulted in commercial as well as open
source solutions for developing software for multiple haptic hardware
platforms. And as haptic devices grow
about the size of a cat, the haptic creature produces different sensations in response to human touch. insert: the haptic creature with furry skin.