Soon, we might be able to “feel” a fuzzy dog or a rough piece of wood on our touchscreen computers. Engineers at Disney are working on haptic technology, a way of using electricity to recreate the feelings we get when we touch things. Future Disney rides and video games might use this technology in the future. Joseph Quintanilla, who works for the National Braille Press and is blind himself, hopes it could even help the blind read maps or graphs.
Ali Israr is one of the engineers working on this new touch screen technology. Before joining Disney, he worked on a device called a tactuator. This translates the sounds of spoken letters into movements felt by fingers, like how Helen Keller learned to “feel” spoken words by touching the mouth of the speaker. While working on the tactuator, Israr learned how to get machines to imitate vibrations and motions of a person’s mouth when speaking.
The idea of feeling pictures on a touchscreen using electricity came by accident when Ivan Poupyrev, Israr’s boss, mixed up the wiring in a touchscreen and felt a rubbery sensation when he moved his finger across the screen. The team figured out how to recreate the sensation from Poupyrev’s lucky accident, but it needed some fine-tuning. They got people to test the screen to help make it better. Testers would “feel” objects displayed on the screen and then give feedback on which kind of electric charge gave the most realistic sensations. For example, higher voltage electricity creates more friction. The researchers discovered that a feeling of a raised bump could be created by using electricity to cause people to feel more friction on their finger.
Unlike many things that are invented for a specific purpose, no one knows exactly how haptic technology will be used in the future. According to Ali Israr: “… we’re curious what it will be used to create.” How would you use a touchscreen that could copy the feeling of real things?