How haptics will transform your gadgets

The era of ubiquitous haptic user interfaces has been predicted for two decades. Now it's finally here. Can you feel it?

Haptics have been part of consumer electronics for a long time. When you put your smartphone on "vibrate," or when you play first-person shooters on Xbox, those vibrations are called haptics.

Most people are familiar with broad applications of haptics such as those. In the case of a phone, it's usually just a utilitarian vibration that you're supposed to notice. In the case of the Xbox game, the haptics help create a richer experience that strengthens the illusion or immersion into a game.

Three new uses for haptics in widely used consumer devices are helping to usher in what Wired called a "Neo-Sensory Age" of incredible haptics-enabled experiences.

The first is for augmenting the tactile experience of using hardware. The second is for conveying pattern-specific information. The third is for communicating.

Here's how all three will transform the experience of using your gadgets.

Augmenting the tactile experience of using hardware

Amazon this week unveiled five new devices, including two e-book readers and three Android tablets. One of the most interesting of these is the company's new high-end reader, the Kindle Voyage.

To both the left and right of the Voyage's screen (which itself is textured to simulate the feeling of paper), Amazon designed touch zones for turning pages. A gentle squeeze on either side turns the page of the book you're reading in that direction, accompanied by a haptic vibration designed to substitute for the feeling of paper sliding across paper.

Likewise, the recently announced Apple Watch, which should ship next year, uses sophisticated haptics that add another dimension to the experience of using the hardware itself. As I detailed in this space last week, the Apple Watch has a "Taptics engine" for providing some interesting and targeted haptic feedback.

When you turn the Watch's crown, which Apple has sub-branded the Digital Crown, there's an instant and specific haptic vibration that dances on your wrist to enhance the experience of feeling the metal scrolling wheel. When you draw on the screen, press the big button under the crown or do any number of things, Apple's Taptic engine will send physical sensations to your wrist to accompany those actions in a way that reinforces to your brain what you're doing.

And Samsung recently unveiled its Smart MultiXpress series of multifunction printers, which have a tablet-like user interface with haptics designed to simulate on-screen controls.

These new devices are taking advantage of a new field of engineering called haptography, which involves recording physical sensations and later playing them back to simulate the action associated with the sensation that was recorded. Haptography is still in its infancy. As it becomes more sophisticated, our devices will gain a third dimension, with textures you can feel added to what you see and hear. Those cold, flat screens on mobile phones and tablets will come alive. All kinds of user interfaces, from car dashboards to refrigerator doors and TV remotes, will respond to our touch by touching us back. It will make these experiences more compelling and even addicting.

Conveying pattern-specific information

The Apple Watch also conveys pattern-specific information. For example, when using turn-by-turn directions in Apple Maps on the watch, the Taptics engine will give you directions by zapping the left or right side of the watch. You can follow the directions without looking at the watch, because the basic information is conveyed with vibration.

A new 2015 Mercedes hybrid car called the S550 includes haptic feedback that conveys critical information through your foot. Specifically, it sends a certain vibration through your foot that serves as a recommendation to back off on the gas pedal and coast to save juice or charge the battery. A different vibration tells you when the car switches from electric to gas.

Wearable computing devices like smartglasses (which, unlike Google Glass eyewear, look like regular glasses) will vibrate in specific ways to alert the user silently to different kinds of information.

Communicating

One of the most interesting applications of haptics is for communicating with other people. This is one of the most compelling uses for the Apple Watch. If you select a person from your list of favorites and then tap on the screen, the person you selected feels those taps (assuming, of course, that he or she is wearing an Apple Watch). You can also send your heartbeat to that person's Apple Watch, and you both will see a beating heart on the screens of your watches and feel a haptic simulation of your heartbeat.

This is similar to numerous devices from startups, such as the Tactilu bracelet, which transmits touch from one person to another. As one user touches her bracelet, the other user feels it on his.

You'll be able to "reach out and touch someone" with your smartphone as a matter of course. Whatever you touch on screen will be conveyed to the other person if he or she is holding a compatible phone. The generic vibration pattern of your phone's vibrate mode will be replaced by custom patterns of vibration for specific individuals, so you'll know who's calling without looking at the phone.

What's amazing about this isn't the practical laziness of having the information that a specific person is trying to reach you, but the psychological experience of near telepathy where you suddenly "feel" a person's presence.

How haptics improve the user experience

We are just at the beginning of the "Neo-Sensory Age." Over the next couple of years, extremely lifelike haptics will be integrated into all kinds of devices. It will reach the point where consumer expectations will compel vendors to integrate high-quality haptics into all of their gadgets.

As we've seen with the Apple Watch, this will be especially true of wearable computing devices. In fact, some devices will use haptics as their only user interface.

Haptics will add depth and texture and -- literally -- a good feeling to computers, phones and wearable devices, as well as car dashboards and home automation appliances. They'll have some practical benefit, but mostly they'll make us love our gadgets more.

The world of ubiquitous haptic user interfaces has been predicted, promised and hinted at for two decades. Now it's finally here.

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