Eilidh Glassey explores the progression of developmental touch technology into every-day life.

TouchHaptics is the science of touch and is currently being developed for use in interactive touch technology. Touch is an important sense and is used everyday in human life but is not yet something we can record or share with others. There are two components to the sense of touch. The first is kinesthetic sensations, which incorporates the positions of our body, how it moves and the forces it experiences. The second component is tactile sensations, the things we feel such as temperature, vibration and contact location. We use a combination of these components in order to understand any physical interactions we make.

Information of any kind that is received through the medium of touch is said to be haptic, so would therefore include braille and some children’s’ touchy-feely storybooks. The amount we use haptics daily in technology is constantly increasing, and it has the capability to be developed and used in an array of different fields.

Currently, the use of haptics only exits in our everyday technology to a very basic extent, such as in the vibration of a mobile phone or a games console controller.  Both of these cases simply give an alert that something has happened but contain no sense of force or movement. The constantly developing touch screens on our mobile phones have not yet managed to incorporate this innovative technology, but it could easily be one of the next new features.

When texting we are given no physical feedback on our fingertips that we have pressed the correct key; and lets be honest, autocorrect doesn’t always do a great job of fixing this for us. With the use of haptics technology, as you push a letter, you would be able to feel the force and resistance at a specific point on your fingertip as if you have actually pressed a real button. This would allow for a more realistic interaction with the touch screen, and more precise texting and dialling.

Disney is aiming to incorporate tactile experiences into our interactions with digital components. They have developed actuation grids, a network of single vibrating points that can move so that the position and intensity of vibrations can be pinpointed and felt on the users skin, creating realistic sensations. This grid can be placed and would give sensory feedback anywhere on the body allowing it be used on a host of devices: theater seats, gaming chairs, vests, gloves, controllers and many more. Games could then not only be played with 3D motion and surround sound, but also synchronized with realistic sensations.

Gaming chairs would allow the player to feel the road condition, gravel, traction, acceleration and collisions happening within the game, creating a more authentic gaming experience for the user. This idea could also be developed for cinemas to give audiences a 4D experience.

This new technology is not only being advanced to be commercially beneficial but has already proved to be advantageous in the development of medical equipment. Robotic surgery is steadier, more precise and more dexterous than the human hand. Unfortunately, the technology also has a diminished sense of touch, which is a difficulty when operating and needed to know the strength of a patient’s tissue. One solution that has already been developed combines the surgeon’s control of the robotic tools and the robot with haptic technology. This has been developed in such a way that, as more pressure is needed by the surgical instrument, the controls become stiffer in order to carry out the set task on the patient’s tissue. Thus, the surgeon has an improved sense of touch inside the patient, through a robotic implement, and does not have to rely solely on visual feedback from cameras which requires a lot of experience to interpret correctly.

Haptics is also being developed for medical training, to give students the experience of feeling certain conditions without having to practice on a living patient’s body. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created a stylus which can record motion, force and vibration, through the use of an accelerometer. When moved over certain objects these aspects are all measured and recorded, and mathematical models are programmed so that these feelings can be played back to you as you run the stylus over a touch screen pad, giving the illusion that you are touching certain objects. Not only could this help in medical training, but it could also improve online shopping and museum exhibits by making them more tactile.

Dental training tools have also been developed using this method at the University of Pennsylvania. We have all been to the dentist and experienced that horrible pick that they use to uncomfortably poke and prod around the inside of your mouth. What they are doing is deciphering between the hard, healthy teeth and the soft, sticky and decaying teeth. These judgments are difficult to make without extensive practice, which is currently done on real patients before a student is fully qualified. By adding an accelerometer to the set of standard dentists tools, the feelings can be recorded. These can then be played back on a touch track to students along with a video so that they can not only see and hear the examination but can have the experience of feeling it too – without unnecessarily poking around in our mouths for practice.

Haptics is currently being used to develop exciting new advances in realism in the worlds of gaming, movies, technology and medical practice -but it is still not yet being used in our everyday lives. In years to come, could this be the following generations’ homophonic ringtones to our polyphonic? The analogies available seem unable to do justice to the scope of possibilities which touch technology could bring about.


Eilidh Glassey


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