Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Haptics - Just another "buzz"word?

A number of upcoming phones are touting the fact that they include "haptic" technology. The majority of the announcements seem to think that the buzzword is enough to get people interested without actually having to define the feature. I guess that leaves it up to me.

Haptics isn’t new, and isn’t even new to phones. Many of you have had phones with haptic technology but just didn’t know it. The first time I recall encountering haptics on a cell phone was playing Nokia’s Snake game. For a few years it was THE game to play on a phone. After a while it started to get pretty boring. To liven it up, Nokia tied certain game events to the vibration component of the phone. The resulting vibration of the snake hitting the wall was a very early and primitive use of haptics.

Haptics is the use of touch sensitive feedback to create a different sensory experience. That doesn’t sound really clear to me either. Let me use a more up to date example. Video game technology has been using haptics for many years. Gamers refer to haptics as “force feedback”. Controllers with force feedback technology (aka: haptics) generate resistance and vibration to give you the sensation of driving a car at 100 MPH through the streets of New York, or the sensation of firing a weapon, or hitting a ball. The manipulation of the sense of touch to create those sensations is haptics.

So, how does this apply to cell phones? Think of my biggest pet peeve with Windows Mobile and the iPhone. Touch screens suck for typing any quantity of text. There is no sensation that a key has been pressed, so you have to watch the screen when you type in order to get visual confirmation of the keystroke. Now, take the force feedback controllers from your PS3 or X-Box and shrink them to fit underneath a key in a cell phone. Then, take away the key and just put a thick piece of plastic over the whole thing. This is what the ROKR8 is doing. When you press a “key” on the ROKR8, you are actually touching a touch sensitive screen. The haptics behind the spot you touch on the screen provide resistance and vibration to make your fingers think that they have pressed a key. Now, you can use a touch screen, have it feel like a real keyboard, and keep your eyes on the road while you dial.

Here is another explanation, specific to the ROKR8 from PhoneScoop:

The second key innovation is the incredible haptic feedback system integrated into the keypad surface. To put it simply, it's the first true touch keypad that feels like real buttons. All current phones on the market with touch keys and "haptic feedback" actually just vibrate the whole phone a little bit to let you know your touch registered. On the E8, however, the haptic feedback is localized so you only feel it under your finger, not the whole phone. What's more impressive is that it doesn't just vibrate a little; it actually has separate "press down" and "release" types of feedback that actually simulate the feel of pressing a physical button. This new type of haptics really works, and quite well. The effect is best described as "spooky". It works so well that if Motorola had told us it had real keys under the surface - and wasn't a touch keypad at all - we would have believed them and never doubted it. In fact , if you treat it like a touch keypad, you'll have trouble with it. That's because it's designed to be treated like a "real" keypad; key presses only register if you press as hard as you would with physical buttons. A light touch like you might use with other touch phones won't cut it on the E8

I hope this helps you get a feel for haptics.

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