Haptic interface of the future

Humans use five senses; sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, to obtain information. Among these, it is said that about 80% of information is attained by sight. Traditionally computer interfaces have also been heavily dependent on sight and hearing.

However, sometimes you may think, "I like the design but if I could feel the texture it would be even better," while shopping on the Internet, or "If I could feel paper and the pages turning, it would feel more like an actual book," when reading e-books. The additional action of touching definitely adds a sense of security and changes one's impressions.

If we could incorporate such senses into computers, we might be able to achieve an interface that allows us to have an enhanced sense of reality--this is the idea that triggered Fujitsu's research which is now already underway.

Expressing a haptic experience on a screen display will allow the user to sense by touch as well as sight. This is achieved with the "haptic tablet." For this report, we interviewed Mr. Endo who is a senior researcher engaged in development of this interface, and we asked him to explain more about this technology aimed at the future.

Interview with researcher

Delivering a haptic experience with ultrasonic vibrations

The idea of applying other senses that have not yet been applied to computer interfaces is not uncommon. The method used to accomplish this, by controlling friction through ultrasonic vibrations, has also been widely known for a long time.

If so, then how is it that Fujitsu researchers are now able to achieve this sensation on a tablet for the first time in the industry? The answer is due to Fujitsu's accumulated experience, having thoroughly stuck to the concept of developing interfaces since the era of when cell-phones first began.

The haptic interface delivers a smooth or rough texture by varying the frictional resistance, by vibrating the touchscreen display panel at a high speed.

Vibrating an object at a high speed creates a high-pressure layer of air between the object's surface and the user's fingertip, which has a floating effect that reduces friction. By utilizing this phenomenon and applying ultrasonic vibrations to the surface of the touchscreen display, the sense of reduced frictional resistance, that is for example a slippery smooth texture, can be created.

When ultrasonic vibrations are stopped, the original friction resistance of the surface of the touchscreen display panel is restored instantly, which creates the sensory illusion of a bump or projection at the boundary of the smooth low-friction zone and the high-friction zone. Precisely controlling ultrasonic vibrations according to the movement of the user's fingertips gives the user not only the sensation of a simple slippery smooth texture, but also roughness, bumpiness, and the projection of buttons.

When such a haptic experience is matched to the screen display, you can feel a sandy texture when you touch a picture of sand, ticking when you turn a virtual combination lock and a slippery sensation when you touch a well-waxed floor. This creates a user experience just as if the user had touched real sand, a real combination lock, or an actual floor.

A new operational feeling brought about by haptic technology!

The haptic interface has the potential to produce new user experiences by appealing to the user's tactile sensations in addition to sight and hearing.

If users can actually feel the bumpiness of buttons they push, then they can easily know the button's position or distinguish between buttons that might otherwise be wrongly identified. This support will be of great help to those users who can only obtain a limited amount of information by sight when they operate touchscreen display panels. Also, by applying a clicking feel to sliders and dials users can directly operate them without having to look at the operating area.

What if we could achieve even more realistic sensations?

For example, suppose you are choosing shirts while shopping online. You can confirm the soft texture of the organic cotton that the shop recommends by touching the display in front of you with your fingertip. Although you are satisfied with the excellent soft texture, if it costs more than you plan to spend, you could then check the feel of a polyester blend shirt, which is less expensive than the cotton shirt. In this way, you could shop just as if you were at a real store.

Imagine you lived away from a family member such as your grandmother and wanted to share an experience with her, although due to distance this was only possible via telephone. However with the addition of a tactile sensation you may soon be able to share a loving hug with her, something that cannot be described by words. This type of warm communication is very different from existing options, and may become very real in the future.

Realistic haptic experiences will also play an important role in the field of education. Although a wide range of applications for use in sensory learning materials first come to mind, there are a great many other potential uses. Since it has gradually become clear that a haptic experience will serve an important role in the area of development support, application of this technology in support fields can also be expected.

In the future, as further advances are made in research and development of haptic interfaces, new and innovative user interfaces, totally different from ones that we currently know, may become quite common.

On display at the Fujitsu Forum Tokyo 2014 exhibition, visitors were able to experience the haptic tablets first hand.