Haptic interaction: feel the buzz

When using a mobile phone, we take for granted the fact that we can feel the shape of the keypad. It lets (some of) us touch-type, or select certain applications without looking. Touch feedback, like the click of a key, also backs up the visual cues we get from the display and makes the phone easier to use. But those touch-based tricks aren’t possible on a device which is “all screen”, like the iPhone.

A team from the University of Glasgow has come up with a “haptic” keyboard for the iPhone (the word haptic describes all things to do with touch). When you press an on-screen key, the iPhone’s built-in buzzer (its actuator) gives a little buzz. They call the buzz a “tacton” – a tactile icon. Apparently, the haptic feedback does make a useful difference.

iPhone haptickeyboard
The team are also working on a haptic application launcher for the iPhone.

Providing a broader range of tactons will mean that devices can communicate more through touch. Adding actuators at several different places in the device can create different sensations, as they buzz in different patterns. There’s also research into creating a “laterotactile display” that can create richer tactile interactions with the tip of your thumb!

The THMB vibrotactile device

There are also other ways you can interact with a phone without looking: tilting and twisting it. Accelerometers can tell a device how it is being waved around. Nintendo Wii is already using this kind of interaction for games, but could it work as an everyday interaction mechanism for mobile devices too? NTT DoCoMo have tried it on their Foma904i handset. Shake the phone twice to start an email…

NTT DoCoMo Foma904i gesture phone

All this proves yet again that making new technology really match what humans need and want is a rarely straightforward. We want multi-touch displays. But we also want haptic feedback, one-handed use and use-without looking – depening on the situation. We want gestures. But we need them to be practical gestures that are not disruptive to our environment and don’t cause discomfort.

Looks like there’s plenty to keep haptic and gesture-based designers busy for years to come.

Thanks to Aziz Hendricks And Bertus Kock for the pointers.