Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Tablets That Have a Certain Feel to Them

Given that most Android tablets look the same, a couple of companies are showing technologies in Barcelona that make sure they don’t feel the same.

One of those companies is a Finnish start-up called Senseg. Its technology, which it says is just now ready to go into products, lets you rub your hand over a flat glass tablet screen and feel texture that is eerily like a real world object. Touch a picture of kitchen tiles, for example and it feels smooth until the bump where the grout is.

A different approach is offered up by Immersion, a longtime player in this field, which is showing off a new generation of electronics that open the door to far more realistic sensations than the current vibrations or simple touch feedback from a virtual keyboard.

Haptics — or the technology that enables adding a sense of feel to electronics — has been around for a while. Immersion, for example, demoed how a phone or tablet could gain a better sense of feel back at our D7 conference in 2009.

Early devices just rumbled or vibrated at certain times. Touch feedback has already made its way in more limited uses, with the most common being virtual keyboards that offer a physical sensation when a key is pressed.

But the field has continued to evolve. Some of the technology just on the horizon reproduces the way things feel much more authentically.

At its booth this year, Immersion was showing a phone with digital maracas that feel like you’re actually rattling rice. Then there’s the roller coaster video that gives you both the click-click-click as you climb and the “whoosh” as the descent begins. Yet another demo app adds to any music playback a bass track you can feel.

Both Immersion and Senseg also demonstrated haptics used another way — as a physical cue to something in a long list of data. Imagine, for example, scrolling though email and feeling a physical bump when you get to a message from your spouse or boss.

Similarly, varying amounts of touch feedback can be used to indicate the popularity or rank of something. Immersion had a demo app, for example, where users could flip through a set of images and feel increased touch sensation when they scrolled to a photo with lots of comments.

The technologies from Immersion and Senseg have some similarities, but work in different ways. Immersion’s technology uses a rectangular bar-like component called a piezo module, that physically vibrates the device in varying locations and frequencies. Senseg, meanwhile, uses the combination of a custom chip and a special screen coating to create an electric field on the front of the display.

Senseg’s approach requires developers to explicitly write their software to use the technology, meaning it could be most attractive to device makers that want to add a feel to their user interface skin. Immersion, meanwhile, has programming interfaces that developers can use, but also has a mechanism to add haptic feedback even to apps that were not designed for it.

The two technologies are also at different stages. Senseg is just now looking to sign its first customers, while Immersion says its newer technology is already in a tablet from Pantech and will come soon to other tablets. Phones should also get the new touch tech, once the piezo modules are reduced a bit in size.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik