Friday, January 30, 2009

About 'Haptics'

What is Haptics?

"Haptics" comes from the Greek word Hapesthai, meaning "the science of touch."

The world of haptics is expansive by definition. It is the field of science and technology dedicated to tactile sensation, and it has applications for everything from handheld electronic devices to remotely operated robots. Yet outside of the research and engineering community, it is a virtually unknown concept. “People don’t even recognize the word ‘haptics’ yet,” says Ralph Hollis, director of the Microdynamic Systems Laboratory. “You have to spell it for them.”

In an age of digital devices that stimulate and amaze the eyes and ears with increasingly high fidelity, haptics has been employed mostly in relatively un­sophisticated applications—rumbling video-game controllers and buzzers that alert you to a cellphone call. But as our digital tools have become more complex and capable, our interfaces with these devices are beginning to run into the limitations of sight and sound. “It’s really only now that we’re seeing a migration from keyboards and mechanical switches to touchscreens and touch-sensitive surfaces,” said Immersion, a company that produces haptic interfaces. “We’re losing that tactile feel that we had before, and now we’re trying to bring it back.”

Touchable Technology

Moving haptics out of the lab can be challenging. Tactile feedback in consumer electronics must be both convincing to the user and appropriate for the device. Broadly speaking, touch can be divided into cutaneous sensing through the skin surface (feeling the pebbly surface of a basketball), and deeper kinesthetic sensing from muscles and tendons (experiencing the impact when hitting a ball with a bat). But much of the recent haptic development in consumer electronics has focused on fooling the fingertips into feeling onscreen buttons that aren’t physically there.

General consumers will first encounter haptics on these touchscreen gadgets and desktop controllers, but the most sophisticated touch technology outside of the lab is found in industrial, military and medical applications.

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