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August 28, 2014

Touch screens that touch back

For most people nowadays, interacting via a glass touchscreen is common practice. You touch it, it responds – simple. But what if there was a better way?


To go forward, we must sometimes look back. Humor me, if you will, as I take you back to the late 1990s.

I got my first phone in 1997. It had a physical keypad and was rather clunky by today’s standards. Within no time, I had mastered the keypad and could pretty much navigate my way around the phone without even looking at it. All I needed was my fingertips and the sense of touch.

What this meant was that I could keep my head up, still involved in the world around me. Not once did I bump into somebody in the street while texting.

However, phones have evolved to include touch screens. And rightly so; it’s a great interface. But can the touch screen evolve?

Microsoft Researcher Hong Tan, who specializes in computer haptics, believes it can.

“The thing that’s really, really cool is to take a smooth piece of glass but make it feel different,” she said. “It’s almost magic.”

Hong’s currently working on providing key-click feedback on flat keyboards and creating feelings of texture and traction on glass surfaces. We may not realize it, but our fingertips are highly sensitive and are capable of feeling an unimaginable amount of detail.


If you’ve got four minutes, here’s Hong demonstrating the fascinating work she’s involved in.


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While most phones today have a vibrating function when you touch them, they do so from within and all over. It’s a good simulation, but it’s far from perfect. The video shows that it’s possible to have just a phone’s touch screen feel different.


Hong explains what she’s working on:


“We’re developing technologies that’s going to enable you to not only touch, but feel that computer screen.”



While this is all very much research and not ready for the mainstream, Hong has a working example of this on Lumia smartphones under lab conditions.


By removing the glass and positioning piezoelectric materials under the bezel, “when you have a keyboard and typing on the phone, the glass literally bends instantaneously. Very small bending. But that’s enough to tell your finger that it feels like a key click,” Hong said.


In addition to key clicks, a similar technique can be used to make parts of the screen feel rough or smooth, as demonstrated on a black and white checkerboard on a Lumia 920. This can be used, for example, to simulate the texture of sand, or metal in a photo.


While this sort of technology may be cool, clever, or make it easier to text while walking to work, it can also be used to help people.



For people living with sight loss, navigating around a smartphone is much more of a challenge than those with good vision. Imagine how useful this could be.


What are your thoughts on this? Would you like greater tactile feedback from your Lumia smartphone?


Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.