Imagine not too long from now you begin a shopping trip by strapping on a VR headset. Though you’re in Terre Haute, Indiana, instantly, you’re beamed to a fashion boutique on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There you reach out your hand, depress a touchscreen and experience the softness of fine Merino wool. Caressing the fabric, you reason that the $320 price is reasonable, hit buy and have it shipped to your home a few days later.
Such an experience might be possible thanks to haptic technology. First used in gaming, haptics have now been employed on smartphones. When you set your phone to vibrate instead of ring, you’re using haptics. When you play motocross games and feel the bumps of the road, that’s haptics too.
In the near future, the industry might be able to expand the haptic palette beyond bumps and vibrations into more nuanced experiences. As a result, the evolution for touch technology will be as stark as the shift from black-and-white to color.
Haptics date back to at least 1976, when Sega used it to simulate the hum and bumps of road race in the game Moto-Cross. As haptics burrowed further in the gaming niche, the technology migrated to cellphones, but it wasn’t until the smartphone era began in earnest around 2008 or so that designers began expanding the range of haptic experiences.
Apple has weaved in some clever haptic designs into its product. Change the date and time on an iPhone 7 and you’ll experience the sensation of flicking a mechanical wheel. The Apple Watch also mimics the sensation of having a rubber band gently snapped on one’s wrist. iPhone-based games take the idea further by simulating a slip on the ice, among other sensations.
But at CES this year, TanvasTouch took the idea even further by reproducing via tablet the fabric’s rigidity and the feel of touching a zipper. Users of the technology say they can distinguish corduroy from silk.
While retail is an obvious application for the technology, the auto industry is employing haptics as well. A Bosch system for automakers simulates the feeling of pressing a button. Some Toyotas and Cadillacs also sport haptic technology.
While haptics have so far been added to touchscreens, it’s likely they’ll migrate to the virtual world. Assuming that devices like Facebook’s Oculus catch on, it’s easy to see how haptics can be integrated into aa VR experience to fool the senses further. Shopping for Merino wool is one application, but the idea can also translate to entertainment and to help the visually impaired.
What’s next? IBM predicts that within five years, computers will be able to “taste” food and suggest foods that fit a user’s palate. IBM predicts computers will also be able to smell, hear and see in five years. Computers will also let us touch things that aren’t there. In other words, the barriers between the real and virtual worlds will continue to crumble and the physical realms of Manhattan and Terre Haute will be less of an obstacle to communication.