Home > Blogs > The Rise of Communication through Haptic Feedback

For most of us, haptic feedback takes two forms - a vibrating phone in your pocket alerting you to an incoming message and key stroke vibrations when typing a text message/playing a game on your smart device. This though, is a shame because as Apple and Google engineers know, haptic feedback could be and should be used for so much more.

Haptic Feedback Touch Technology

Gamers have long known haptic feedback systems via controller vibrations. Playstation, XBox, Nintendo and Dreamcast have all used controller based haptic feedback to simulate impacts, hits and rough movement. Mobile device users know haptic feedback from smartphone gaming vibrations, vibrating phone ringers or the vibration caused by each keystroke when typing a text message. In all cases, haptic feedback functions as a process of data delivery. If you're gamer playing a FPS, vibrations means getting hit by an enemy projectile. If you are a businessman, vibrations mean an incoming sales call. In all cases, haptic feedback serves the user as a means to convey the opening of a conversation or the immersion into a virtual world.

Haptic Feedback can be so much more though. Instead of representing the start of a conversation, haptic feedback can function as the conversation. Instead of representing the need to answer an incoming phone call, haptic feedback can alert you to direction awareness. Instead of simulating a rough hit in a video game, haptic feedback holds with it the power to fully immerse you in its world.

Here are a few examples of how haptic feedback will change all of our lives in 2015 and beyond.

1. Directional Awareness

You're in a new city and you aren't sure where you are going. One choice is to whip out your smartphone and proceed to walk around that city with your head buried in the phone following route guidance however, as you want to site see, this option makes no sense. The other option is using haptic feedback to alert you to directions.

With the Apple iWatch, haptic feedback is being used to direct people to their destination. After inputting a destination into the internal GPS system, the iWatch will be able to guide people to their route by supplying them with unique haptic feedback vibrations designed to tell the user to make a right or a left. This system will allow users to view a new city without getting lost because, let's be honest, the last thing you want to do as a tourist is head up to Bryant Park from the High Line on 23rd only to miss the Empire State Building while your head is stuck in a map application.

2. True Haptic Communication

For the majority of people, haptic feedback serves as the doorway to communication. A vibration in your pocket lets you know a new message arrived, someone is calling or a major news event is breaking. Yet, what if you could use haptic feedback to compose a message in real time. Currently, one engineer at Google is working towards that goal. As noted in the January 2015 issue of Wired Magazine haptic feedback holds with it the power to enable a new form of communication.

"That’s why, to me, the most interesting use of haptics won’t be “hey, go check this out” alerts. It’ll be the potential to spawn a new mode of communication. People are extremely good at distinguishing among many different signals written on their skin. Google wearables designer Seungyon Claire Lee tested what she called BuzzWear, a wristband that vibrated three small buzzers in 24 different patterns. With 40 minutes of training, her subjects were able to distinguish among them with 99 percent accuracy. In another study, MacLean played patterns onto people’s fingertips via a smartphone game—and found they could remember them weeks later. “It was like learning new words, like learning verbal language,” MacLean says."
"Crude buzzer patterns are likely to give way to more granular, complex signals. Already, inexpensive conductive threads can deliver tiny bursts of electricity. Lee envisions using them to stitch hundreds or thousands of haptic pixels into clothing that could “draw” a picture onto your skin: tactile illusion, as she puts it." - Wired Magazine, Jan, 2015. Clive Thompson

If you think the idea is a bit out there, go ask Samuel F.B. Morse about his code of communication. As described by Claire Lee, BuzzWear allows users to hapitcally analyze and utilize touch patterns to make sense of and send haptic messages. Add to this haptic apps like Mumble! wherein users have the ability to use haptic feedback not as the opening to a message, but the message itself and you can see how haptic holds the power of communication in its touch.

Haptic Feedback Communication

3. Full Gaming Immersion

When I was a kid, the N64 Rumble Pack was pretty cool. The rumble pack, as the name suggests, vibrated whenever your virtual avatar was hit. As games have evolved, haptic feedback has pretty much stayed the same. Your controller will vibrate when your character is hit, lands roughly or is smashed into by a projectile yet most gaming environments haven't moved past using haptic feedback as an addition to action as opposed to a full immersion tool. With the rise of Oculus Rift, virtual reality gaming and full body sensor gaming consoles, that might finally change.

The basic premise of Oculus Rift and VR gaming is tricking the mind into believing you are currently in the virtual world shown on your VR headset. Imagine though if VR had the power to fully simulate being hit in the stomach, shot in the leg or crash landing from a steep jump. By placing sensors on key parts of a player aligned with in game action, that haptic feedback can provide those true to life stimuli. If the basic rule of any video game is immersion, adding life like haptic feedback only helps push the experience closer to reality. 

At the end of the day, haptic feedback systems must progress past simple vibrations to relate incoming messages and vibrations in gaming environments. If haptic feedback applications aim to make mobile computing and gaming more immersive, the systems must push into real time communication, real world directional capabilities and life like game sensory. Hopefully, 2015 and the years to come will bring just that.

 Remember, if you like this content and want to chat about it, you can reach me at the following social spaces:

  1. Twitter: @bleibowi
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