Futuristic touch screen technology is taking the “try before you buy” mentality to the next level by allowing users to “feel” physical objects before purchasing them. Although the technology is still in its infancy, scientists predict that over the next few years, consumers will begin to see early elements implemented into touch screen devices, with some early products already in development.
When you buy a new couch, you might not need to leave your old one to get a sense of the texture of the new material. Researchers are working to better define how the finger interacts with a device in order to aid in the development of technology that goes beyond sensing and responding to your touch.
Dr. Cynthia Hipwell, Oscar S. Wyatt Jr. ’45 Chair II Professor in Texas A&M University’s J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, is leading a team working to better define how the finger interacts with a device in the hopes of assisting in the further development of technology that goes beyond sensing and reacting to your touch. The research of the team was recently published and was featured on the cover of the journal Advanced Materials.
When you buy a new couch, you might not need to leave your old one to get a sense of the texture of the new material. Touch screen technology that allows people to “feel” physical objects is being developed by researchers. For example, when shopping online, consider the texture of clothing fabrics.Dr. Cynthia Hipwell and Oscar S. Wyatt Jr.
The ultimate goal of developing this human-machine interface is to enable touch devices to provide users with a richer touch-based experience by equipping the technology with the ability to mimic the feeling of physical objects. Hipwell provided examples of potential implementations ranging from a more immersive virtual reality platform to tactile display interfaces similar to those found in automobile dashboards and a virtual shopping experience that allows users to feel the texture of materials before purchasing them.
“You might be able to feel textures, buttons, slides, and knobs on the screen,” Hipwell said. “It can be used for interactive touch screen-based displays, but the holy grail would undoubtedly be bringing touch into shopping so that you can feel the texture of fabrics and other products while shopping online.”
Hipwell explained that the “touch” in current touch screen technology is primarily for the benefit of the screen rather than the user. With the development and refinement of increasingly sophisticated haptic technology, the user-device relationship can become more reciprocal. She went on to say that the addition of touch as a sensory input would eventually enrich virtual environments and alleviate the burden of communication currently carried by audio and visuals.
“When we look at virtual experiences right now, they’re mostly audio and visual, and we can get audio and visual overload,” Hipwell explained. “Being able to incorporate touch into the human-machine interface can provide a lot more capability, realism, and reduce overload. Haptic effects can be used to draw your attention to something in order to make it easier to find or do with a lower cognitive load.”
Hipwell and her colleagues are approaching the research by examining the multiphysics of the interface between the user’s finger and the device (the coupled processes or systems involving multiple physical fields occurring at the same time). This interface is extremely complex and changes depending on the user and the environment.
“We’re looking at electro-wetting effects (forces caused by an applied electric field), electrostatic effects, changes in the properties of the finger, the material properties and surface geometry of the device, contact mechanics, fluid motion, charge transport really, everything that’s going on in the interface to understand how the device can be designed to be more reliable and higher performing,” Hipwell said. “Ultimately, our goal is to develop predictive models that will allow designers to create devices with maximum haptic effect and minimal sensitivity to user and environmental variation.”
Hipwell predicts that as research and development of the technology continues, consumers will begin to see early elements implemented into common devices over the next few years, with some early products already in development.
“I believe early elements of it will undoubtedly be within the next five years,” Hipwell predicted. “Then it will just be a matter of how advanced, realistic, and widespread the technology becomes.”