Will iPad 3 offer a more immersive touch experience?

March 5, 2012
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Now that Apple confirmed it will have be hosting an event this Wednesday, it's widely expected to unveil the next generation iPad. The video capabilities of the new iPad, expected to double the resolution of the current iPad 2, have been well-documented. In fact, mention of an iPad HD case in a product catalog has led many to believe the new device will be called the iPad HD and not the iPad 3. 

Meanwhile, in advance of Wednesday’s announcement, there’s been a lot of analysis of Apple’s invite to the event, which showed a finger touching part of an iPad screen and the words: 

“We have something you really have to see. And touch. “

The “see” part could simply refer to seeing the device itself, but with numerous reports based on supply chain and other Apple partners pointing to a much higher res display, odds are the reference is specifically to the improved display quality Apple. 

See me, feel me, touch me

The reference to “touch" is more problematic. 

But it could well mean Apple has implemented new haptic technology in the iPad. Haptics is tactile feedback technology that lets users feel sensations like vibration and force feedback — e.g. a kind of mini-shockwave feeling in a game controller, or a grainy or “heavy” feeling when certain onscreen objects are touched to differentiate them.

“It’s an intriguing idea that Apple could use haptics to offer more feedback in a user’s gestures,” says IHS iSuppli analyst Rhoda Alexander. 

If so, Apple wouldn’t have the first consumer tablet to implement such features. For example, the Pantech Element, released in January at the Consumer Electronics, is an Android tablet that uses haptics technology from Immersion, the Silicon Valley firm that’s licensed a range of haptics solutions to software and hardware developers for both business and consumer devices. 

Immersion had no comment on whether it has anything to do with Apple’s announcement, but Apple is known to have filed many haptics-related patents on its own. 

Just as touchscreen technology had been around for years before the iPhone, haptics has been available for quite awhile and continues to evolve. Dennis Sheehan, VP of marketing at Immersion, says the underlying technology, the hardware like the actuators and chip technology that make it possible, has improved and Immersion recenlty coined the term HD haptics to convey the "high fidelity" of the latest generation of products. 

“There’s plenty of headroom in the technology,” says Sheehan.  

You can already “feel” Immerson's haptics technology at work in some Android tablets that give virtual keyboards a feeling of touching individual keys when you type versus the flat, pressing-on-glass feeling when you use the iPad’s virtual keyboard. 

Further advances could help business productivity. Sheehan says Immersion has been demoing how haptics could be used in subtle ways to help users deal with information overload. For example, users might be able to identify different types of email based on how it “feels” on your finger as you move down your inbox. There could be a kind of heavier feel to email that’s most important to you (based on some previously established criteria, e.g. anything from your boss or husband). 

Similarly, if you post a bunch of photos on Facebook, the ones with a lot of comments might feel more “raised” or grainy to the touch to more easily identify which are proving to be popular.

As for the iPad 3

The investment site Seeking Alpha noted today that Apple added some haptics to the iPhone such as custom vibrations to identify callers and some 40 Apple patent applicaitons mention haptics in the filing. 

“We still believe Apple has a ‘not invented here’ syndrome as far as haptics, but it is also possible to speculate that the existing effects were considered not "good enough" by Apple engineers,” says Seeking Alpha in a report on Immersion. 

“Today's HD haptics, made possible also by the introduction of new piezo drivers like the DRV-8662 from Texas Instruments, a long time Apple partner, may contribute to a shift in Apple' s attitude, a good reason to look at the incoming launch of the new iPad 3, this week, for clues if it may represent another step toward haptics implementation.”

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