How the tablets of the future will reach out and touch us

September 17, 2013

Consumer electronics design has been on a trajectory of smaller, thinner, lighter, more responsive, and more intuitive for decades. From tablets to smartphones and the entire category of wearable computing, we’re beginning to see devices move into paper-thin territory – resulting from the capabilities, size and scalability of device components.

So what’s next? Advanced haptic components create multimodal sensations from inside keyboards and wearables to transform the way tablets and devices are designed and used.

As an inventor, futurist and entrepreneur, I could not be more excited about what’s next. The idea of a neo-sensory age of computing is upon us. The next dimension in tablet design is one that will enliven our senses by combining natural touch, vibrations, sounds and real-time surface deformation.

One example is the metamorphosis of the keyboard for tablet screens, complete with the swiping capabilities we’re already used to, vibrations that confirm keystroke actions and various forms of notification, and also with product concepts demonstrating physical keys and buttons rising up from the screen.

Multisensory interaction with haptics

This multi-sensory interaction is the core of the neo-sensory age – a much richer and fulfilling way of experiencing and interacting with tablets and other devices – and haptics is an essential part of it. Haptics refers to tactile feedback we get in response to touch actions. In the physical world, any touch action comes with sensory feedback that reinforces the action. Yet with current touchscreens you only feel the glass and not the object under your finger. New sensory feedback takes us far beyond the traditional modes of sight and touch screen engagement by awakening tablets to the point where they feel alive.

The neo-sensory age brings a more natural sense of touch to human-computer interaction. This level of interaction requires force and position sensors to detect user touch at precise locations, and also actuators to create the localized tactile and acoustic feedback. The combination of sensors and actuators will act as a second skin to this new class of tablet.

Actuators and sensors will have to be remarkably thin, small, light, flexible, responsive and strong. The tactile and acoustic effects produced must be meaningful to the end user, synchronized with the touch actions, and offer a large range of feedback or vibration for hundreds of different activities and messages.

Reengineering the tablet experience

As haptics emerges as one of the latest advances in electronics, it will have a major impact on user experience and tablet design. Developing new, interactive sensory experiences will uproot traditional modes of product design. Designers will be exposed to a new dimension of tools and capabilities, and will be challenged to completely rethink the traditional ways of designing devices, how users will engage with their tablets, how to improve person-to-person communication, and eventually how to expand human capabilities.

Haptics is a powerful yet silent medium and a source of life. It is not until you hold a physically morphing tablet in your hand that you realize its power and revolutionary capabilities. I expect that 2014 will see haptics become the 4th dimension of computing – opening the door to a new wave of unprecedented product design, modes of interaction, user experience and tablet enjoyment.

Dr. Christophe Ramstein is President and CEO of Strategic Polymers, which makes technology that animates mobile devices and consumer electronics. Dr. Ramstein holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the Polytechnic Institute in France.

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