Jul 09 2013

Reach Out and Touch IT: Microsoft Research Develops Tactile Touch Screen

Researchers incorporate haptic technology to bring a new sense of touch to computing.

Touch-based smartphones and tablets have transformed the way users interact with computers. But in the story of touch-based computing, we’re only at version 1.0.

While software applications can receive feedback from our fingers, our fingers receive zero feedback from the virtual fruits they slice in Fruit Ninja.

Products that integrate senses other than hearing and sight with technology have been in the works for years. Smell-O-Vision, which sought to engage the nostrils as well as the pupils back in 1959, seemed like a good idea but ultimately flopped.

Can tactile touch screens succeed where Smell-O-Vision failed?

Microsoft Researchers think so. Scientists in the company’s Natural Interaction Research group have created the Actuated 3-D Display with Haptic Feedback. The company detailed its finding in an article on the Microsoft Research site.

Haptic technology, “which simulates the sense of touch through tactile feedback mechanisms,” according to the researchers, allows computers to mimic physical characteristics of objects in the same way that they visually mimic photographs.

In one demonstration of the technology, a user is able to feel three different virtual boxes with three different textures.

One project application consisted of three virtual 3-D boxes, each with different virtual weights and friction forces corresponding to their supposed material: stone, wood, and sponge. Users could push with a finger on the screen into the virtual space until they encountered one of the boxes, and the device simulated the appropriate resistance through force feedback as the user pushed at each box.

The force-feedback monitor responds to convey the sensation of different materials: The stone block “feels” hard to the touch and requires more force to push, while the sponge block is soft and easy to push.

Some of the potential use cases for such technology include healthcare, for example, scanning the brain for tumors by discriminating hard tissue from soft tissue, and, of course, gaming.

Imagine playing Tomb Raider and actually struggling to push a boulder up a hill because the screen is pushing back. Combined with Microsoft’s motion-sensing peripheral, Kinect, game makers could create all kinds of new games to engage haptic technology.

The dawn of the Touch 2.0 era begins now.