Please, touch the display

The possibilities for integrating haptics with displays are nearly limitless.

BY SRI PERUVEMBA, Board Director & Head of Marketing, Society for Information Display

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A technology trend you may be hearing about more frequently is haptics. The term refers, quite literally, to the science of touch – it is tactile-feedback technology that applies force, motion or vibration to the user to create the sense of touch. In many cases, an actuator is used to convert electrical, hydraulic or pneumatic energy into vibrations that are controlled and managed by special software (FIGURE 1). First integrated into motors, haptics can now be encountered nearly anywhere, enhancing the user’s sense of realism and attracting attention in unique ways. For example, new car models employ haptics in the seat, steering wheel and other areas in conjunction with such technologies as lane departure and forward collision warning alarms.

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Haptics are particularly useful when combined with actual touch technologies. Most of us are familiar with touch displays, given their ubiquity in smartphones, tablets and newer automotive displays. But they do have drawbacks. Touch screens can be difficult to use in wet or sandy environments, as well as those involving extremes of temperature. Now, consider the notion of haptic touch – essentially, a screen that touches you back. Haptic touch screens can provide tactile feedback to your finger as you swipe or scroll over the screen. Ultra-low electrical currents that create sensation on the skin can allow you to feel buttons, textures and other visually flat surface features, resulting in a more immersive experience.

Automotive applications

Haptics are turning up in the design of today’s cars for a range of applications, helping improve the driving experience and making it safer. As mentioned earlier, car makers are including vibration alerts that warn drivers of potential impact with another vehicle, and sensors integrated with haptics can provide warnings that help drivers parallel park safely. The union of haptics and displays can ideally help improve the interface between people and vehicles. Some automobile brands employ a system similar to a tablet. Located in the center console, it enables the driver to use fingertip touch to control the vehicle. Other carmakers are incorporating haptic feedback in the dashboard and console to enhance driver control and maintain safety.

Mobile devices and gaming

As makers of mobile devices began to adopt haptic technology, the vibrate function on mobile phones became a standard feature. The basic vibrations first incorporated into mobile phones, which allowed users to get notifications without having to turn on the ringer, have now become fully customizable.

Utilizing this haptic “language,” users can know generally what’s happening without having to stop right away and look at their device, increasing safety and convenience while driving, biking, running and other activities. The Apple Watch allows the wearer to hear and feel communication, utilizing the company’s patented “taptic engine” to deliver a physical tap. It also allows the wearer to literally send another person a tap – the recipient will feel a similar sensation when tapping his or her watch, and will know who is looking to get in touch. The next generation of haptic technologies will take it further, allowing a dozen or more uniquely different sensations to be created using new polymer materials driven by customized waveforms.

In the gaming space, early haptics comprised vibrations sent through a handheld controller. As more companies entered the space and launched their own systems, every console featured some type of haptics. Over the last 20 years, haptics have moved beyond the controller, to steering wheels and gaming chairs, among other tactile gaming accessories. Today, the gaming market is approaching $100 billion, and the combination of haptics with large, high-resolution screens is making gaming a fully inter- active experience. Even familiar video games like Pong or those using dice or cards take on a new dimension of reality when haptics are integrated. The newest trends include integration of as many as 10 haptic actuators into the handheld gaming controller. Each of these actuators can provide unique feedback, in both intensity and pattern, driven by software/waveforms.


The fastest-growing application for haptic displays is virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR). Companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Facebook and large startups such as Magic Leap are investing a great deal in this space, while smaller entrants are expanding the landscape, creating many new opportunities. Virtual reality now looks and sounds so lifelike that you feel as though you’re physically in the virtual space, so you want to touch things and to feel things touching you.

But without haptics, this isn’t possible. Early versions of AR/VR devices offered visual and auditory experiences with rudimentary haptic feedback. The next generation of devices will allow even more varied virtual experiences – e.g., realtors can ‘walk’ buyers through a new home, while travel promoters can allow clients to ‘experience’ new vacation destinations. In addition, AR/VR with high-resolution displays and haptics will bring tremendous gains to the medical and entertainment industries. All of these advances will be possible with haptic technologies that let you distinguish textures, feel rain on your palm, and be able to differen- tiate between hard pebbles and soft sand.

Haptics in medicine

Today, if you undergo medical or dental surgery, there’s a good chance the surgeon used technology involving haptics to practice and hone his or her skills. Integrating medical devices with haptics provides a new level of intuitive performance for medical practitioners. While technology developments have yielded new medical devices that let doctors perform procedures with minimal disturbance to the patient, the all-important personal connection between them has lessened. What haptic technology enables is a return to the importance of touch in strengthening this personal connection between doctors and patients. The result is a multi-disci- plinary approach to developing medical devices.

Laparoscopic surgery has already become a boon to surgeons, enabling them to obtain clear internal information on a patient with minimal invasion, recovery time and scarring. Integrating laparoscopes with haptics takes this invaluable technique one giant step further, giving doctors the ability to obtain a similar sensation to what they could receive using their hands and other tools while still minimizing patient discomfort. Dental training simulators also become more effective and realistic when integrated with haptics, and using haptic technology in student practice can help eliminate professional errors.

Looking ahead

The possibilities for integrating haptics with displays are nearly limitless. Imagine being able to “travel” to remote areas and experience what it’s like to visit the rainforest, Antarctica, or virtually any other place on earth. Not only tourism, but the real estate market could benefit from this typeofapplication–peoplewhoneedtorelocateorinvest in property far away from their current location could use haptics to allow the full virtual open house experience. Think of the convenience and savings in travel time. In the retail space, before you visited a big department store, such as Harrods of London, you could go through the store with a VR set outfitted with haptics for a fully tactile pre-shopping experience. And then there’s entertainment. Hollywood is finding new ways to allow you be part of a movie – e.g., 3D films shown in a theater equipped with motion simulator seats – while Disney Research has a major project in the works called Surround Haptics.

If you’d like to know what the industry’s brightest minds are dreaming up in the haptics space, plan to visit Display Week 2017, being held May 21-26 in Los Angeles. Display Week is the premier event for previewing display technologies that will be on the market in the next two to five years. This year, AR and VR will be well repre- sented, along with many haptics-related demos. Come join us for a sneak preview, and feel.


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