Haptic technology is on a roll; it's been adopted in more than 20 smartphone models, including the Nokia N8 and Samsung Galaxy S series, because it can help people interact with touch-screen applications more accurately and otherwise enhance the user experience, says Jennifer Colegrove, an analyst with DisplaySearch.
DisplaySearch, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based research firm that focuses on the display market, hasn't yet released growth projections for haptics, but Colegrove notes that tablet PCs are ripe for the technology. One tablet that already includes haptics is Samsung's Galaxy Tab, which has sold 2 million units since its launch in September of last year.
One practical application of haptics is, for example, to make the virtual keyboards on smartphones and tablets more usable. "The loss of tactile feedback [with virtual keyboards] tends to cause high error rates and user frustration," says Amritha Sridharan, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan. (See related story: "Will touch screens kill the keyboard?")
And emerging haptic feedback technologies can do a lot more than simply vibrate. They can make a display's surface feel rough like sandpaper, or slick, or wet. They might even create the sensation of something moving under your finger. Thanks to haptics, users will soon be able to experience a display surface as more than just a piece of glass.
On the downside, haptics work on top of touch screens, adding a layer to the display. That means there are two layers between the reader's eye and the media being displayed, which can reduce screen brightness.
Shaking up the display
Haptic systems deliver tactile feedback by using mechanical actuators and other mechanisms that cause the surface above the touch screen to vibrate. The simplest version of haptics is the familiar vibrate mode in a cell phone.
The technology has also expanded into consumer electronics, medical products and gaming, says Sridharan. As haptics become more sophisticated, she expects to see new applications in those areas, and in the automotive and home automation markets.
Immersion Corp.'s mechanical actuator system design dominates the market -- LG, Nokia and Samsung have together shipped nearly 200 million phones that use the technology designs it licenses, according to Dennis Sheehan, vice president of marketing for Immersion. Toshiba uses the technology in its dual-screen Libretto W100 concept laptop, and Synaptics uses it in its Fuse concept phone, which features touch dialing and navigation from the back of the device.
The concept behind Immersion's haptics is simple. Most cell phones already have a spinning motor with a slightly off-center weight attached that's used to create a vibration when the phone rings in silent mode. Immersion's software controls that motor to create different vibration patterns.