iPad rekindles haptic discussion

Everyone is talking about the iPad, Apple’s much-anticipated touch-screen tablet. However, some of the UK’s leading human-computer interface academics believe that the future holds something far more impressive.

Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, claims that the ‘magical’ device would provide the best browsing experience people have ever had, allowing them to ‘hold the whole world in their hands’ by controlling actions with their fingertips.

But according to Stephen Brewster, a professor of human-computer interaction at Glasgow University, it won’t be long before a host of new computer-interface systems will allow people to have a far more immersive experience of these devices.

‘At the moment you have a featureless, blank screen,’ he said. ‘We’re looking at making this into something more interesting, with 3D surfaces. So people are looking at technology to project up above the surface with ultrasound and potentially feel something over the screen of the device.’

Brewster added that this work could extend to deforming the screen itself using inflatable membranes. ‘You can imagine your Google maps might be a physical 3D landscape on your screen, or buttons could pop up to provide a more sensory experience.’

While much of this is still at an concept stage, the vision builds on the emerging field of haptic technology – the science of applying touch to interaction with computers. In 2008, The Engineer reported on research being conducted at the Helskini research centre that aimed to insert piezoelectric actuators behind the touch screen to produce vibrations that mimic tactile sensations.

Since then, advanced haptic technology has found its way into everything from car-dashboard displays to digital cameras. Apple is one of the companies leading the way in this technology and future versions of the iPad are rumoured to have advanced haptic capability.

Prof Helen Petrie from the Department of Computer Science at York University, said: ‘We’ve already developed systems where the tactile sensation is so realistic, its unbelievable. In the future, I think we’ll have an image on the screen where you put your hand on it and can feel it. I don’t think that’s too far away and I think that’s a real game-changing possibility.’

Another area of emerging technology that has the potential to change the way we work with computers is micro-projection. These systems, which are being pioneered in the UK by Cambridge University spin-out, Light Blue Optics, allows any media player or mobile phone to display an virtual screen. The potential of overlaying the screen with infrared touch-sensing technology could open up possibilities in providing virtual iPad-like screens anywhere on a flat surface.

Could the development of picoprojection technology halt the rise of the tablet?

‘The technology with micro projectors is a bit limited at the moment, because they’re not very powerful and very power hungry,’ said Brewster. ‘But that’s only going to get better with time. If they can get them to match the snappy response you get from the iPad or the iPhone and overcome the challenge of making up for tactile feedback, then potentially you can have a device small enough to fit in your pocket, but that can provide the quality of a larger system. The possibilities would be endless.’