Brave New Sensations – The World of Haptics

Haptics is everywhere. You may not know it, but haptics and haptic technology is an integral part of life. And thanks to innovations in tech, it’s applications are right at your fingertips. If you’ve ever owned a cellphone, then you’ve experienced the application of haptics without even realizing it.

In Greek, the word haptikos, from which haptics is derived, means perceiving and grasping. Haptic technology, a field that has grown considerably in recent years, was founded on the dream that the complex power of touch is not only important, but also very, very possible. And as we’ve seen, haptics is just getting started.

Those studying haptics focus on the two types of touch sensation, tactile and kinesthetic, unique but interlocking. If you ever wonder how your brain so incredibly estimates the size and weight of stuff, that’s thanks to kinesthetic touch. It’s what you feel from responsive sensors in muscles and joints.

What you get from tactile is also integral to the puzzle. Where kinesthetic is all about the body and its relationship to the space around it, tactile focus on surfaces, their vibrations the pressure relative to you, and the textures. Both have to be employed for technology to give you the most realistic haptic feel possible.

To recreate touch, a strange and highly subjective sense, technology has wedded advanced software with innovations in force feedback. Force feedback is what you get from a haptic interface; it’s the sensation achieved with vibrations, supplied by actuator motors, replicating our tactile and kinesthetic relationship to the world. To make this happen, polyhedral models are constructed in the digital world, and the hardware helps transmit these estimations of touch. That’s haptic rendering for you.

Haptic technology reveals how little we know about the sense of touch. The mechanisms necessary to recreate it are still being developed. It may be years before lifelike touch completely returns to technology.

However, what applications we already enjoy are incredible. For one thing, we have force feedback controllers for video games. Play a first-person shooter and you’ll feel the kickback on that digital laser pistol. Also, haptic feedback is being used to return the button feel to touchscreen phones, bringing you a little bit back into reality.

Beyond the commercial applications, we’ve got new medical applications of haptics being revealed all the time. Advances in haptic feedback make it possible for medical trainees to not only get their hands on simulations of organs but feel realistic how they respond to all kinds of procedures.

Really, the possibilities are endless. From being able to feel the fabric of clothing you want to buy on the internet via advanced touchscreen interfaces, to getting realistic physical responses from a driving simulator, haptics is an exciting space for invention.

A truly groundbreaking application of haptic technology, of course, is in sex tech. Teledildonics, where a caress or stroke can be transmitted from one device to another, relies on advances in haptic feedback. Imagine an intimate, steamy simulation being as realistic and exciting as the real thing. All that tactile and kinesthetic data flooding the erogenous mind, reconstructed for your pleasure.

What’s most exciting about studies in haptic and force feedback, though, is the overall desire for realism. Haptics is about understanding all the information that’s exchanged between space and mind so that touch technology can be brought ever closer to tactile, mechanical reality. The implications of haptics could even mean a tactile web, in which haptic feedback is added into the online surfing experience. That and online communication enhanced by this return to physicality. Touching the web and having it touchback.

Written by:

Isaac Simon