CyberEdge Journal

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Touch Me, Feel Me

Immersion Announces Haptic Feedback for Touchscreens

Imagine that. Immersion has just announced a touchscreen with haptic feedback. My first thought was, how'd they DO that?

(Disclaimer: I own a bit of Immersion stock and have consulted with them in the past.)

I spoke with Mike Levin, Immersion's VP in the Industrial Control Group, and learned how TouchSense works.

Most of us have all used touchscreens at some time. They appear on ATM machines, Lotto kiosks, museum displays, and a lot of other places. They work in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that you touch the surface of a display system, and that system senses where your finger (elbow? nose?) is and reacts. Many systems provide audible feedback to let you know they have reacted to your touch.

But no touchscreen had any tactile feedback. That is, you could not feel a button depress, or a slider move. Immersion has addressed that problem.

Immersion developed TouchSense® technology that allows touchscreens to "touch back." The system is composed of actuators, controllers, and software.Touchscreen manufacturers, integrators, and product OEMs can now design these components into their touch-enabled systems to easily add tactile feedback.

The TouchSense system is based on vibrotactile feedback. In other words, there is no motor that applies forces to your hand. What there is is a group of devices that vibrate the touchscreen surface up and down, side to side, or both ways. When you push on the image of a button, the touchscreen tells the TouchSense system, and a suitable feedback vibration is created. Because your finger is in a single location, it feels like the button is responding,though in fact the entire screen is moving. Instead of feeling just the hard surface of the screen, graphical buttons can seem to depress and release. This responsive action supplies a more intuitive, natural, multisensory experience.

Levin told me that he thinks this technology will be especiallyy useful in loud and distracting locations, like the cab of a HUMVEE, or a service station in a noisy bar. He also thinks that TouchSense will have medical applications, because gloved doctors need feedback when they press the keys of a virtual keyboard displayed on a washable touchscreen in the operating room.

Immersion claims that clarity and accuracy of the feedback are unaffected for flat touchscreen sizes ranging from 2 to 19 inches, and the technology can be applied to all types of touchscreens including capacitive, resistive (4-, 5-, and 8-wire), surface acoustic wave, and infrared. The TouchSensee system will cost OEMs anywhere from $5 per unit for small screens, up to around $50 per unit for a 19" display.

Here are a few of the key features, from Immersion's press release:
  • Graphical buttons can provide the familiar up and down forces of physical buttons
  • Menu items can supply a pulse sensation when lightly touched and a confirming push-back response when pressed
  • A rocker switch can exhibit increasing or decreasing vibrations corresponding to motor or fan speed, magnitude, or other parameter
  • Enter, Next, and other major and minor functions can supply a consistent feel throughout an application
  • Scrolling displays can provide a stop sensation when the first or last items have been reached
  • Switch controls can exhibit a pop effect
  • Levers can offer a click response for each possible setting.
Immersion assists manufacturers with product configuration and prototyping, and supports its partners from integration through manufacturing.

Great stuff, I think. Demo systems areavailable now, and developer kits will be out in the next few months. TouchSense will probably be seen first in automotive systems, followed by public displays, assuming that the technology is robust enough. Public uses, such as kiosks and gaming machines are the places where the least informed users are, and those users are the ones who will most benefit from tactile feedback.

Another good application would be for persons with disabilities, especially those with low vision or motor-control disfunctions. For those people, haptic feedback could greatly facilitate computer use. However, Levin tells me that this market is limited, and Immersion would need to find a partner already active there.

I love cool gadgets and I certainly think this qualifies. I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but I look forward to getting my hands on Immersion's Tactile Touchscreen. I'll report when I do.


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