Haptics? What the heck is that?

We had our 2nd child late last year and suffice it to say, things have been very crazy. I did try and post a few articles after our daughter was born, but it certainly has been quite challenging to say the least. I am hoping as time passes, I will be able to resume singing my verses (it’s a ballad – right?) on a more regular basis.

So, what in the heck is Haptics, anyways? I came across this word in reading an article recently and was very intrigued. Upon some digging around, I quickly found that “Haptics” is the one word that essentially encapsulates the iPhone user experience and has been very instrumental in delivering the punch line to the smartphone market (among many other things we are very familiar about).

Haptics refers to sensing and manipulation by touch, a very vital component that defines the Human Machine Interface (HMI).  Apparently, the study of Haptics is subdivided into three areas –

  1. Human Haptics – Study of human sensing and manipulation through touch. Think the iPhone!
  2. Machine Haptics – Design, construction and use of machines to replace/augment human touch. Think Robots!
  3. Computer Haptics – Haptics for the virtual environment, basically rendering touch and feel of virtual objects. Think Microsoft Kinect!

While the field of HMI has been in existence ever since pre-historic man perhaps designed the first tool, Haptics has literally gone mainstream with the current generation of smartphones. In the past, video game manufacturers cleverly incorporated vibrations into joysticks and steering wheels to simulate conditions such as wind shear, road bumps, landing vibrations, braking/acceleration/turns etc. Those haptic concepts have also been incorporated into mobile phones. The ‘vibrate’ mode in a cell phone is a prime example.

Touch screen vendors like Synaptics, Elan, Perceptive Pixel, Immersion etc are paying close attention. In fact, many of them have already patented many touch screen techniques that they cross-license to other vendors. Everything that a user experiences when interacting with the smartphone has been very carefully designed with haptics in mind. From the virtual keyboard that pops up when you type an email or type in your destination address in Google Maps to the bumps and vibrations that you feel when playing a mobile game or when interacting with a cool fun app are all the result of research in the field of haptics.

As smartphones began their rapid ascent, there was a notion that RIM will have to say bye-bye to their business, because the Blackberry was simply not there in terms of user-experience. That may be true, but haptics has played a hand in keeping RIM in business. You ask how? The short answer is QWERTY. According to IDC, texting on smartphones is more than three times error prone and more than five times slower than on a QWERTY phone. With texting consuming a vast amount data band-width, keyboard phones are here to stay.

And that, my friends, will keep RIM in business! Well, that and the fact that the Blackberry OS has an iron clad security layer that enterprises love and not to mention the rabid followers of the ‘CrackBerry’ – all of these will keep RIM relevant for some time to come. But, this also has everything to do with Haptics – because end-users are used to typing on the keyboard and texting on a glass surface is not the most convenient.

Recognizing this issue, phone vendors are starting to address this problem by designing hybrid smartphones that essentially have a keypad for texting/email etc and a touch screen.  Going forward, pure and hybrid smartphones will inhabit the growing smartphone market. Furthermore, the notion of touch related actions and interactions with data, applications, games etc on the smartphones and other devices will become more pervasive and common in our day to day lives.

Cell phone vendors will however need to be careful with haptics as they try and differentiate their phones with competition. Locking end-users to HMI gestures that only work on one vendor will cause a lot of angst when users buy another smartphone where they have to learn another set of HMI gestures to initiate the same actions. This can seriously hinder the ramp of their latest and greatest smartphone – that’s one reason why Apple’s iPhone4 has used the same set of gestures across multiple generations of iPhones. And surprise! Other vendors also followed suit – because, now these haptic gestures have been patented and are licensed across phone vendors. More and more touch screen vendors are patenting newer gestures to ensure that they don’t get left out when one set of gestures supersede another. Interesting? Eh!

While you may never encounter the word “Haptics” again, do note that a lot of how we interact with the various devices that we work with everyday is the result of research in this field of “Haptics”. So, thanks Haptics!!

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3 Responses to Haptics? What the heck is that?

  1. Pingback: Are you feeling the data? | Pixel Ballads

  2. Pingback: Haptics – Update #2 | Pixel Ballads

  3. Pingback: What’s happening with NFC these days..? | Pixel Ballads

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