How would you like to equip your phone, home-entertainment system or car with a technology that’s five times faster than your sense of vision?
Don’t look now: It’s literally at your fingertip.
That fingertip — actually, all your skin — is where your sense of touch begins. It’s also the starting point for a fast-growing technology known as haptics.
Haptics involves the use of cleverly designed electrical and mechanical components. These parts, most smaller than a postage stamp, can empower smartphone screens, automobile consoles and many other surfaces to provide feedback that users not only see, but also feel.
If you’ve ever switched your smartphone to vibrate, then you’ve already experienced haptics, though only to a limited degree. Haptics feedback can also include changes to a surface’s surface (known as texture rendering), sudden pulses and more. Far grander and more ambitious applications for haptics are now in the works, and not only by the usual high-flying startups. Haptics has also caught the eye — and fingertips — of electronics stalwarts that include Texas Instruments, Johnson Electric and Cypress Semiconductor, not to mention Disney and Apple.
What these companies share is the desire to cash in on a fast-growing and potentially huge market. Just how big and fast-growing can be hard to, well, get a grip on. But market watcher IDTechEx predicts that worldwide sales of haptics products will hit $4.8 billion by the year 2030.
Licensed to thrill
For haptics specialist Immersion Corp., that future is already here. The company, based in California’s Silicon Valley, says its haptic technology is used today on more than 3 billion devices around the world. None of those devices have Immersion’s name on them, however, because the company licenses its technology, mainly to makers of mobile phones, auto touchscreens and video game controllers.
Immersion is also one of haptic technology’s oldest players. Formed in 1993 by Louis Rosenberg, then a recent Stanford grad and specialist in immersive augmented reality, the company went public 6 years later. Today Immersion’s shares are traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market, and revenue for its most recent fiscal year exceeded $110 million.
Far newer to the haptics scene is startup Hap2U. Based in the French city of Grenoble — something like that country’s answer to Silicon Valley — 5-year-old Hap2U was a big hit at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in Las Vegas. The company has also attracted a sizable investment and collaborative partnership with German carmaker Daimler. Hap2U’s technology produces ultrasonic vibrations that, the company says, can turn any surface — whether glass, wood, plastic or metal — into a touchscreen. A smartphone with this technology could not only vibrate, but also change its texture under the user’s finger, helping the user navigate web pages, switch apps or validate commands.
A narrower, more focused approach to haptic technology has been adopted by XR Haptics, a unit of XR Technica. The Melbourne, Australia-based company specializes in virtual simulators used for training physicians and other healthcare professionals. The company’s devices combine virtual reality and touch sensations to provide training that’s safer and less expensive than practicing on real patients. The devices guide trainees with haptic feedback during the training, then provide them with performance reports afterwards. Current applications help surgeons practice new and unfamiliar procedures, help nurses to take blood, and assist emergency workers in learning the latest protocols for resuscitation. Looking ahead, XR Haptics plans to offer training simulators for medical procedures ranging from embryo transfers to dental root canals.
Haptic gloves are the specialty of another company, Seattle-based HaptX. It has developed a silicone-based textile, called microfluidic skin, that contains tiny pneumatic actuators and air channels in its ultra-thin (0.06 in.) space. This textile, in turn, forms the base of HaptX’s haptic glove. Each glove contains 130 actuators that create a force-feedback exoskeleton strong enough to apply four pounds of pressure to each of the glove’s fingers.
But wait, there’s more. HaptX’s gloves are now being used to control robots designed by a partner, Converge Robotics Group. These so-called tactile telerobots are controlled by a human operator wearing the HaptX gloves. When the human operator opens their hand, the robot opens its hand too. What’s more impressive is that this communication goes both ways: The robot also transmits touch sensations back to the human operator. So if the robot’s thumb presses on a hard surface, the human operator will feel pressure, via the haptic glove, on their own flesh-and-blood thumb.
Haptics technology isn’t only for serious business. Disney Research has developed a prototype called the Force Jacket that uses haptic technology to create a new game-playing sensation. The jacket’s 26 inflatable compartments, each controlled by a micro-solenoid, can be quickly inflated or deflated in synch with the visuals of a video game. For example, wear Disney’s Force Jacket while playing a snowball video game, and each time you’re hit front-on by a digital snowball, you’ll feel an air-pressured pounding on your chest.
Consider yourself haptically prepared. If anyone asks whether you’ve heard of this new technology, you can tell them you already have a feel for it.