Mobile Phones to Get Tactile Touch Screens

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Press your finger on a cell-phone touch screen in 2007 and the screen could press right back. Immersion--a developer of tactile or haptic technologies--said today that it plans to license its new force-feedback technology to handset makers, to make virtual buttons on cell-phone screens.

Fans of Sony's PlayStation 2 or Microsoft's XBox are already familiar with the tactile reactions they feel in joysticks and steering wheels on their gaming consoles. Now the technology could move to mobile devices.

Built into a personal digital assistant or smart phone, a haptic (touch-responsive) screen doesn't actually flex against a user's finger, but a small electric motor behind it delivers a small tap. Combined with an audible "click" feature used in platforms like automated teller machines, the overall effect helps mimic a mechanical button on a digital screen.

More Tactile Technology

Immersion plans to license the technology to manufacturers of smart phones and PDAs who want to improve the utility of their touch screens, said Mark Belinsky, vice president of market strategy for the San Jose, California, company.

The new development is similar to the firm's VibeTonz System, which cell-phone vendors already use to synchronize ring tones and video games with tactile vibrations.

Samsung uses VibeTonz in its SCH-a930 mobile phone, allowing users to identify callers without taking a muted phone out of their pockets, since the phone vibrates differently for each assigned ring tone, Belinsky said.

Samsung also uses haptic technology to add a sensory dimension to video games. Game makers including Punch Entertainment, SkyZone Entertainment, and Sonic Branding Solutions have signed agreements with Immersion to use VibeTonz technology.

A Vivid Demo

In a demonstration at the IDG offices, a simple motorcycle racing game played on the SCH-a930 phone felt much more vivid when a reporter could feel the vibration of rough pavement beneath his wheels, the acceleration of a twisted throttle, and the impact of a crash into a telephone pole.

Vibrating songs and games are decent gimmicks for selling phones to kids, but the real payoff will come when vendors use haptic technology in their touch screens, says Avi Greengart, principal analyst for mobile devices with Current Analysis.

"If you're just trying to make a phone that's more exciting for young people, maybe that's exciting or maybe not," he said. "But when it comes to giving force feedback to a handset, this gives you the physical sensation that you just pushed a button, and that's compelling."

As handsets get thinner and begin to host richer media, their designs feature "all screen and no buttons," Greengart said. The challenge for vendors is how to let users know which button to press, and which button they have just pressed. Tactile feedback is the best answer yet, he said.

Immersion has licensed similar technology for years to manufacturers of video game consoles, medical training simulators, and automotive dashboard manufacturers. The company is locked in a trademark infringement lawsuit with Sony, which allegedly uses Immersion's technology in the PlayStation series.

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