Haptics: The feel-good technology of the year

How 'high-fidelity haptics' from Immersion and Apple will transform the experience of using gadgets

The touch screen is taking over cell phones, and soon mobile computing and even desktop computing. Both Apple and Microsoft are working on a transition to touch-enabled versions of OS X and Windows. Touch screens are coming in, and keyboards and mice are on their way out.

But if you dread the loss of physical keyboards and mice, with their reassuring physical clicking and movement, you should know that two Silicon Valley companies plan to artificially replicate the feel of at least keyboards on touch devices. But that's just the beginning. They also intend to create high-quality feedback for other on-screen objects, such as buttons, window edges and even video game action.

Of course, haptics in the form of buzzing vibrations have been with us for a while and are already contributing to a much richer experience with devices of all kinds. South Korea's Samsung, LG Electronics and Pantech, Finland's Nokia, Canada's Research In Motion and many other cell-phone makers are using haptic feedback.

Samsung even makes a phone with the word "haptic" in the model name: The Samsung Haptic 2. The phone uses haptics to create a physical dimension to ringtones. The phone vibrates according to the sound.

Haptic feedback has crept into everything from GPS gadgets to automobile dashboards in some Lexus, BMW and other makes. Samsung even sells a haptic digital camera called the ST10. A new generation of medical robots, which enable very fine, minimally invasive surgery, relies utterly on haptic feedback to the surgeon.

Haptics are great. But a transformational new generation of the technology is about to emerge from at least two Silicon Valley companies: Immersion and Apple.

Immersion's 'high-fidelity' haptics

You may not have heard of Immersion Corporation, but you've probably used their technology. Immersion licenses its designs to product makers, both in medical and consumer industries. Their medical-industry partners make robots and equipment for minimally invasive surgery. The haptics provide surgeons with tactile feedback that makes the advanced surgery possible.

In the consumer space, the company's technology shows up in gaming controllers, car dashboards, GPS gadgets, media players and, most frequently, all kinds of cell phones. Immersion claims that 70 million cell phones contain the company's haptics technology.

Immersion CTO Christophe Ramstein demonstrated today at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference a breathtaking new generation of haptic technologies he calls "high-fidelity haptics."

Ramstein called a volunteer onto the stage and invited her to play a pinball game on a specially configured Hewlett-Packard tablet PC. She immediately responded to the haptics, and said that she could actually "feel a metal ball rolling on a hard surface." She could feel all the motion of the game, the vibration of the whole machine and detailed, super-realistic but subtle tactile cues of the kind that you would feel with a real, physical pinball machine.

After playing for a minute or two, Ramstein threw a switch to turn off the haptics. The volunteer reported, essentially, that the game suddenly became cold and dead, even though all the graphics and sound were still in play.

Far beyond the one-dimensional buzzing of today's haptics, the next-generation technology will be able to serve up thousands of different sensations, which will be immediately recognizable to people.

This new world of high-fidelity haptics will be able to convincingly create sensations associated with sound and also with the shape and texture of onscreen objects.

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