3 reasons you will be moved by haptics

Forget today's buzzing smartphones and rumbling game controllers. Next-generation haptics make the virtual real and smart enterprises will take notice.

abstract virtual reality head set augmented reality headgear
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Everybody has experienced haptics technology at some point. That zap of vibration you feel when a text message comes in. That shaking of the game controller when the grenade goes off. It's all haptics.

Although gamers tend to appreciate haptics, many people don't. A huge percentage of smartphone users, in fact, turn off many of the haptic features on their phones. People generally don't know about, or care about, haptics.

The public generally holds three misconceptions about haptics.

  1. Haptics are boring or annoying
  2. Haptics are mostly for consumers
  3. Haptics are an unimportant gimmick

But the truth about haptics -- especially the future of advanced haptics -- is actually amazing.

 Misconception 1: Haptics are boring or annoying

Haptics is an interface based on touch. Various technologies, including little weighted hammers that vibrate.

Because haptic vibrations are controlled by software, they can be programmed to do some amazing things. Increasingly advanced haptic technologies are being engineered into car dashboards, industrial equipment, barcode readers and, of course, smartphones.

[ Related: Why it's time to augment our thinking about AR ]

Haptics can provide feedback through touch that makes using electronic devices easier and more intuitive. But the real purpose of haptics is to communicate information to users.

Over the next few years, haptics will make virtual objects more convincing because haptics enable users to feel the virtual world.

Apple's iPhone 11 line does not contain Apple's 3D Touch technology, which registered physical pressure applied to the screen and had served as a differentiating feature of iPhones since the iPhone 6S, with the exception of the iPhone XR.

Instead, Apple now offers something it calls Haptic Touch. Long-pressing on an icon registers a haptic buzz and presents a menu of options.

That's pretty minimal information. But Apple's working on some pretty amazing haptics wizardry.

Apple patents reveal that Apple may add haptics to its iPads and possibly its iPhones to simulate different materials to the touch. They might combine this with actual temperature changes. They could make the screen feel like paper or marble or leather or concrete, using vibrations and temperature.

Apple was recently granted a patent for a ballpoint “Pencil” where magnetic fluid behind the ball interacts with magnetic fields coming from a tablet to very the smoothness and speed of the pen across the surface. Presumably this could be used to simulate paper of different textures while writing on an iPad.

Apple is working on haptics that improve the realism of on-screen keyboards. One of Apple's inventions involve the embedding of electrostatic haptic electrodes that enable users to "feel" the edge of keys that aren't really there.

That's the kind of technology that could get the public to accept a two-screen laptop, where the bottom screen displays a haptic on-screen keyboard that feels almost as satisfying and intuitive to use as a physical keyboard. With the right haptics, users will able to touch type like they do with a real keyboard.

In fact, Microsoft, which is no slouch in the haptics engineering realm, may be preparing some great haptics for its new product line.

Microsoft's recently announced Surface Neo and Surface Duo products are both dual-screen devices. They're scheduled to go on sale in about a year, which is causing potential buyers to ask: Why will it take so long?

One possible reason is that, to make the dual-screen concept really fly, Microsoft will need more time perfecting the haptics.

The Surface Duo, which will run Android instead of Windows 10, won't be accepted by users unless the keyboard, game-controller and other virtual on-screen interfaces are comparable to physical ones. The on-screen interfaces will be virtual, but need to feel physical.

Whether Microsoft nails the haptics on these devices remains to be seen. But what is clear is that companies like Microsoft and Apple are feverishly working on haptics-centric on-screen keyboards so go they make physical keyboards obsolete.

Misconception 2: Haptics are mostly for consumers

In the Steven Spielberg movie "Ready Player One" (based on the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline), the protagonist, Wade Watts, wins money in an online virtual reality contest, and the first thing he does is buy an advanced haptics suit. The suit allows him to feel sensations from virtual reality.

The action takes place in 2045 -- some 25 years in the future. Yet the haptic suit depicted isn't all that more advanced in concept to virtual reality suits being built and sold today.

A wireless, full-body haptic suit for VR and AR called the Teslasuit, made by a company called VR Electronics, simulates both cold and hot temperatures through haptics. The suit is targeted at enterprises for industrial applications, and also for public safety, athletics and rehabilitation. It also captures motion and biometrics and can trigger involuntary- muscle movements.

Another company, called Valkyrie Industries, brands its haptic suit currently in development the "Iron Man." They're targeting mainly at enterprise training applications.

In both cases, the suits are able to directly stimulate muscles and cause contractions. Electrical impulses are sent from the suit, instead of the brain, but contract the muscles just the same. The biggest advantage of this is the capability to simulate the mass and weight of objects. Picking up a chair in VR might actually feel "heavy."

The BeBop Sensors Forte Data Glove Enterprise Edition launched in September is a pair of wireless haptic gloves for Virtual reality and augmented reality. The company says their gloves are designed to be used for rehabilitation, robotics, drone control, cad design and other applications. The built-in haptics enable users to feel virtual objects, including their textures. The gloves containSix haptic actuators on four fingertips the thumb and the palm.

Other gloves exist in the market now that are similar to the BeBop. And most of them are for enterprise applications.

The reason VR and AR haptic suits and gloves are aiming for enterprises are that the informational feedback provided by haptics is of high monetary value, justifying the high cost of haptics technologies.

Misconception 3: Haptics are an unimportant gimmick

Remote surgery and other kinds of remote robot control, training of all kind, and VR and AR interactions of every description, really depend on a sense of feel or touch. While part of this is making the experience believable and intuitive, part of that touch sensation is absolutely necessary for the application to work. We need tactile feedback to know what's going on.

Imagine how difficult or impossible it would be to do ordinary things -- typing, woodworking, fixing a car, eating with utensils, playing a musical instrument, driving a car -- if we had no sense of touch in our hands.

If we're going to realize the potential of AR and VR, we need to feel the virtual world, not just see and hear it.

Advanced haptics will make that possible. Despite popular misconceptions, haptics are exciting, haptics are mostly for enterprise applications and haptics are necessary for the virtual world we are building.