How Haptic Feedback Brings Sensation to Touchscreens

By Matthew Braga

Everything has a touch screen these days, but stodgy holdouts point to one thing preventing them from making the switch — lack of tactile feedback.

Everything has a touch screen these days, but stodgy holdouts point to one thing preventing them from making the switch — the lack of tactile feedback. There's no denying the success of Apple and Android phones, but those large multi-touch screens lack the same physical feeling of a conventional keyboard. It can be hard, if not impossible to touch type on a virtual keyboard, and the feeling of tapping on a flat, unresponsive surface for minutes on end is nothing short of uncomfortable.
It's for that reason that haptic feedback technology has become all the rage in recent years. Usually with the aid of a motor, haptic feedback aims to simulate the feeling of physical interaction while using a touch screen device. We've seen companies like RIM implement the technology with their Storm line of BlackBerries, while Motorola devices like the Droid have followed a similar approach.   

The next big leap in haptic feedback technology is all about electricity — specifically, using it to stimulate receptors in your fingertips. Instead of using a traditional form of haptic feedback, engineers are working on a way to allow touch screens to emulate the sensation of any physical surface, simply by adjusting the way that electricity is applied. 
Toshiba recently announced plans to use Finnish company Senseg's electrical haptic tech in its phones and eReaders sometime next year. And unlike traditional, motor-driven systems, Senseg's solution actually comes in the form of a thin, flexible layer, one that can easily conform to an irregularly-shaped surface. This means that haptic feedback could easily extend beyond the touch screen of a phone or device to its entire surface.

 Apple&squot;s patent for "a grid of piezoelectric actuators" — AKA, haptic feedback.
patent filed back in early 2008. While nothing concrete has actually been announced, the company mentions an approach based on "a grid of piezoelectric actuators" for potential use in an iPhones or iPod Touch. Modifying the frequency of the actuators produces different sensations that the user can seemingly feel — which, in the case of mobile phones, could potentially replicate the experience of using a physical keyboard or device.

The electric signals produced on contact can be modified in such a way that textures like wood, metal or leather can be simulated. Because the coating covers an entire device or area, those sensations can be targeted, with different buttons, UI elements or portions of the screen producing different sensations at a time. And if the system works as well as Toshiba claims, it could greatly improve upon the old physical motors that give us our current haptic feedback fix.

Toshiba is set to the be the first company to enter the market with this sort of tech, though other big name players can't be far behind. With our growing desire to turn all our devices into giant panes of glass, replicating the precision and experience of a physical device has no doubt been made a priority. Haptic feedback motors do a nice job simulating that physical experience, but they're far from perfect; if this tech works, it could be just the thing to bring all those keyboard-loving codgers over to the touch side. 
Images via Gizmodo, ZDNet.