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Wishing you and yours a haptic holiday

'Force feedback' game controller technology is shaking up the cell phone market. Can you feel it?

November 8, 2007 12:00 PM ET

When playing Halo 3 on your Xbox 360, or other games on other consoles, your handheld game controller shakes and rumbles to coincide with on-screen explosions, crashes, gunshots and grenade detonations.

It's called haptics, or force feedback. In gaming and virtual reality, haptics boost realism by adding a third sense -- touch -- to augment vision and hearing.

A new generation of cell phones, as well as other gadgets, is introducing haptics. The purpose isn't to add realism, but to provide psychologically satisfying information about precisely when a button is pushed.

With cell phones, everyone wants minimized phone size but maximized screen size -- two features obviously at odds. New phones like Apple Inc.'s iPhone solve this quandary by dispensing with buttons altogether and allowing the screen to take over the whole surface of the device. Small device, big screen. Problem solved, right?

Well, it turns out that our brains miss the buttons. While typing away on cell phones, we feel the buttons press, click and push back. This mechanical feedback tells us with certainty that buttons were, in fact, pressed.

This holiday season is the first ever in which a variety of haptic phones is available for purchase. I'll tell you about the phones at the end of this column. First, let me tell you what's happening now in the world of haptic cell phones.

Haptics on steroids

The most exciting project in consumer haptics yet demonstrated is a project by Nokia Corp. called Haptikos. The project combines haptics with the actual physical depression and raising of parts of the screen.

The Haptikos prototype shows on-screen buttons, but when you press one, it "depresses" under your finger, and you both feel and hear a click.

Nokia is using a special screen with "piezo sensor pads" just below the surface. These pads can effect about 0.1 mm of movement of just a small part of the screen, enough for your brain to register button feedback.

A Nokia S60 device will reportedly be first to ship with Haptikos technology, probably some time next year.

Meanwhile, an Apple patent filing, titled "Keystroke tactility arrangement on a smooth touch surface," describes physical bumps and depressions in the screen itself similar in concept to the Haptikos project.

We can look forward to Haptikos-like devices next year. This year, all the haptic phones available use an immovable screen with haptic vibration feedback only.

Meet the haptic phones

If you live in the U.S. and want a haptic phone this year, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that there are seven haptic phones available. The bad news is that five of them aren't available here.

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