The Quest to Touch Virtual Objects

By Humans Invent on at

Media, from television and radio to the internet, only takes advantage of two of our senses: sight and sound. Traditionally speaking, our sense of touch has rarely been utilised in analogue or digital communication.

However, the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets in recent years has started to change that. Due to the use of touchscreens on these devices, haptic technology – that which takes advantage of touch – has become integral to their development as scientists seek to perfect the interaction between hand and interface.


Utilising touch

Sharp is constantly looking for ways to advance haptic technology so Humans Invent decided to speak to Research Director of Sharp Laboratories of Europe, Mike Brownlow, to find out more about this nascent field.

Brownlow says, "The whole UI  (user interface) paradigm and the design of screens is under constant development. Currently, the commercial state-of-the-art display is the capacitive multi-touch which is used in most smartphones these days."

Capacitive touchscreens rely on the electricity flowing through your fingers to detect the exact area you are pressing on the display. Unlike the increasingly less popular resistive touchscreens, where you need to push down on the screen, capacitive screens only require you to touch the surface lightly, speeding up various processes such as touch-typing.


Haptic development

However, scientists are working on ways to take this technology further. Brownlow says, "Proximity interfaces are being developed where, as you bring your fingers towards the screen, the screen has a predictive ability of what you are about to do and you can then interface with the screen without actually touching it."

As 3D evolves there will come a point where the user will want to interact haptically with these images. Brownlow says, "If the images are above the display it makes sense to interact with it in that space. If you are watching a 3D image and you want to touch it, you will want to touch the image and not necessarily the screen because they are not in the same place."

Just as in the real world we use touch along with the other senses to understand the environment around us, it should also be taken advantage of when using digital devices. In the case of smartphones and tablets for example, we want to know when we have touched a key.

Brownlow says, "Humans inherently rely on touch. It not only helps the brain to know you've pressed the key, it feels good. Touching a cold hard piece of glass, a) it's hard to tell unless the whole thing vibrates, b) it's hard to tell without looking if you have made a mistake, it's a classic touch typing scenario."

There is a fairly basic system in many smartphones that causes a vibration when you touch the screen. Brownlow says, "There is a tiny little motor with an eccentric cam and it emits a little vibration every time you touch the screen."

He continues, "The problem with this, though, is that it doesn't matter where you touch the screen, you still get a little motor going buzz. There are technologies being developed, however, that spread the haptic effect over the surface of the screen in an area sensitive way."


Force sensitive tech

Another area of haptics that Sharp Labs are researching is force sensitive technology, which allows the display to recognise the amount of pressure being applied to the screen by the finger.

Brownlow says, "When you write with a pen, for example, the thickness of the line will depend on how hard you press down. Force sensitivity will also solve the problem of resting one's hands on parts of a smartphone or tablet's display."

By understanding the difference between a resting hand and a finger pushing down, this could resolve the issue of activating keys by accident.

While the field of haptics is still relatively inchoate, the current development of user interface technology on smartphones and tablets, as set out above, indicates an understanding of the importance touch can play in communicating digitally.

 Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fuelled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.