How new haptics tech will move you

The illusion of haptic vibrations is magnified when combined with other factors. Call it "haptics plus."

This diagram explains how Fujitsu's prototype haptic tablet uses ultrasonic vibrations to create a sensation of texture.
This diagram explains how Fujitsu's prototype haptic tablet uses ultrasonic vibrations to create a sensation of texture.

Now that the Apple Watch is finally out in the wild, millions will be experiencing the next big thing for user interfaces. Call it "haptics plus."

Haptics normally involves actuators, or tiny vibration motors, to either convey information, create a touch illusion of some kind, or both. (If you've ever played a console game, you've felt the vibrations in the controller designed to simulate action in the game.)

The new trend in haptic feedback is to combine haptics with "something else" to crank up the illusion of action, motion, texture and even the illusion of touching something that isn't there.

In the Apple Watch, and in the latest MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops, that something else is a feature that Apple calls "Force Touch," which is the use of pressure as a gesture.

For example, when you press the corner of the touchpad in a new MacBook with medium pressure, it feels like a physical button is clicking. In fact, the trackpad isn't moving at all and nothing is clicking. It's all a very convincing illusion created by the combination of haptics with Force Touch (and often sound as well, such as the sound of clicking).

The Apple Watch enables comparable combinations of haptics, force and sound to create other convincing illusions. But these Apple examples of "haptics plus" are nothing compared with what Apple is planning next.

Combining haptics with temperature changes

A new Apple patent application that was published Thursday describes the addition of temperature changes to a haptic system to create new illusions.

The title on the application was "Touch Surface for Simulating Materials." The document describes what sounds to me like an advanced haptics actuator that can move horizontally, vertically or in both directions at the same time. These very fine and highly controlled vibrations would be combined with fast changes in temperature of the surface.

For example, when simulating a metal surface, the trackpad or touchscreen would go cold. When simulating a wood surface, it would be warmer. And even the grain of wood would be simulated.

This is achieved by registering both the movement of a finger across the screen, combined with the pressure of the finger. As the finger passes over a ridge in the virtual wood grain, the vibrations would change at that moment to simulate the feeling of touching the uneven wood grain surface, and these vibrations would vary based on the force of the touching -- just as the actual sensation on your finger would vary if you were touching a real piece of wood.

Using air as the haptics medium

It's clear that we're on the brink of a revolution in virtual reality and augmented reality. Google's Cardboard, Facebook's Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap's technology are all steps toward making VR and AR mainstream.

Both VR and AR create the illusion that objects and environments that exist only in software are actually there in front of you, and all around you.

While binocular screen views will provide the 3D visual illusions, and speakers or headphones will create the audio illusions, haptics will let you touch what isn't there.

The default assumption for how this will work is that it will involve the delivery of touch sensations through special gloves. A few companies have already demonstrated haptic glove products for the Oculus Rift.

Recently, a British company called Ultrahaptics came up with a way to create VR touch illusions without gloves. It does that by using air as the medium that conducts the haptic vibrations.

If you've ever been to a very loud concert, you know that sound can be felt. Ultrahaptics uses ultrasonics, or sound that you can't hear because it's outside the range of human hearing, to create haptic touch sensations.

Ultrahaptics uses a specially designed pad to create sound in the neighborhood of 40kHz, which is too low to hear. So if there's a virtual object in front of you while you're using virtual- or augmented-reality goggles, you'll be able to "feel" its edges and surfaces if you reach out and try to touch it.

In its prototype, Ultrahaptics uses the Leap Motion controller to determine the exact location of your hands and fingers. When they come into contact with the visual illusion, precise blasts of inaudible sound give a sense of precise touch to only those parts of your hands that would be touching the virtual object.

Combining the idea of haptics with the medium of air creates a haptic illusion without direct contact or the wearing of bulky gloves.

This idea would be especially great not only for video games, but also for control interfaces. Just as Apple is using haptics on its new laptops to tell your brain you clicked the touchpad, Ultrahaptics will enable holographic control systems that will use airborne haptic feedback to inform your brain that you have successfully completed a simple gesture, such as moving to the next slide or changing the channel.

The Apple Watch and the latest Apple laptops are introducing consumers to the next big thing in haptic feedback -- combining vibration with something else to make more convincing illusions.

But this is just the beginning of a new generation of enhancements to haptic technology. Our interaction with gadgets and computers will not only become more touchy-feely, but also more intimate and satisfying.

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