Intro into Haptics – The True Sense of Touch

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Haptics: Understanding the Senses of Touch

From mobile phones, video game consoles and personal computers, users are interacting with a multitude of interactive technologies on a daily basis. Interaction through touch is what we call haptics.

Most of us likely have used haptic technology through vibrotactile feedback. The vibrations you feel when your phone alerts you of a message you just received or a game controller makes you aware of damage your character is receiving.

As we head towards the future we are likely to see haptic technologies in consumer devices expand to benefit from our full range of touch. Your watch may heat up to discreetly alert you of an important message, or your gamepad might cool down to set the mood as you enter arctic territory. To better understand what is possible, we should better understand how our sense of touch works.

What is touch?

In primary school you may have learned about the five traditional senses – vision, taste, smell, hearing, and touch. This is a bit of a simplification, and a narrow scope of what exists.

The depth and complexity of what we consider the single sense of touch often indicates that it can be divided further into different senses in their own right.   We call these pain, pressure, temperature and proprioception (sense of one’s self). This gets interesting as having a better understanding of these separate senses give us a better understanding of what we can do with them.

For this article, proprioception will not be a great area of interest to us as the majority of touch perception is at the skin level, if not slightly beneath.

The combination of perception of these senses, as well as with the more traditional senses (e.g. sight and hearing) provides a channel and bandwidth in which to deliver information.  This allows for a combination of perception of the different dimensions of roughness, warmth, cold, pressure, size, location and weight.

For example, touching something wet may be a perception of both pressure and temperature.  So if we are to mimic the feeling of wet, we can do so by emulating both its temperature and pressure.

It is not farfetched to think that soon enough we could create virtual environments where users use haptic gloves to grab objects in the virtual environment that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

Next up: Thermoception

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