Haptic Phones Cause Good Vibrations

Opinion: Elaborating on the simple buzz of a silenced cell phone: It's clever, but is it necessary?

Feedback can be useful. Without it, your virtual motorbike can come off the road, and youll never know. With a good actuator, however, you can tell when you hit the lamppost, because it hurts.

Welcome to the world of haptics, the new thing in feedback technology—and mobile phones.

"There are three or four different types of actuators," said John Grundy, vice president of Mobility for Immersion Corp.

"Theres the old Eccentric Rotating Mass, or ERM, which is basically a long axle with a weight—the sort of thing you have in neck massage machines. But thats old hat, and so are Coin Motors, which is really the same thing but packed flat, a short rotating motor with the mass around the outside.

"What were using today, is a magnetic actuator; we call that Linear Resonant Actuator, where the mass floats between two magnets and you feel the force as the magnets pull it around."

And some time in the future, well have new technology, MFA (multi-function actuator), where you put weights onto the loudspeaker cone, Grundy said.

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Grundy is a couple of weeks away from launching the first haptic phone into Europe. Haptics are the science of touch, and here are some of his dreams about what haptics can do for a phone.

First, games. Boring, but it works on games consoles like the X Box; if you hit your opponent with the flaming sword, you feel the jolt up your arm; if you drive your car off the road, you feel the grumble of the gravel under the wheels. Console gamers love it.

I wouldnt know; Im a PC gamer, and use a mouse. I did once try out a Logitech haptic mouse, with force feedback, and it was ... well, weird.

Second, etiquette. Of course you turn your phone ring tone off when you go to a movie theater, but wouldnt you like to know whos calling anyway? "You can actually get the vibration pattern to change to match the special ring tone you have for special callers," Grundy said.

"The average young phone user has five ring tones, set to tell them who is on the line. We can set the actuator to imitate the ring tones, so if its your spouse on the phone you can go to the bother of leaving the hotel room before answering, without anybody knowing it even rang; if its your boss, you simply ignore it."

Can you really recognise a tune by touch?

"Yes, really. Id say that you should be able to distinguish between seven to ten ring tones just by feel, with very little training. And not just ring tones, either. Theres a lot of things that happen on a phone which we can signal to you."

Hes thinking about dropped calls, here, and I get it at once: "Youre on the train in London or New York, and chatting away, and suddenly realise that for some time, youve been talking to yourself, because the call dropped when you went under a big bridge. We can tell the call is gone if we look at the display—but thats generally far too late. So what if we could trigger a haptic alert, which says: hes gone... as soon as the line goes down? That would be helpful!"

/zimages/5/28571.gifRead Jim Louderbacks commentary here on adding touch feedback to mobile phones.

And in the future, he reckons, haptics could be used for text messages, too. "I reckon we can do touch-emoticons. I havent studied any detailed research on this, but if you think about it, normal SMS messages have emoticons which you have to have explained to you at first.

"You wont get a smiley unless someone tells you how to view it—and its like a secret language, these days, with dozens. We think we can get ten, twelve, maybe more emoticons so that when a text comes in, you can tell if its someone whos pleased, or angry, before you open it up."

Helpful? Maybe less so, but you can see the idea catching on. What might be more exciting, perhaps, is a user interface feedback.

Suppose you have to place a call by feel, not being able to take your eyes off the road? "You probably have five frequently called numbers in your dialling list. If you could scroll down and tell from the feel of the vibration whether it was one of these, that would be a start."

I tried to interest him in phone-gum. I reckon the tongue is far more sensitive than the fingertips, and so I suggested an actuator that you wrap in rubber, and chew. You might even be able to understand someones voice...?

"Its all a question of fidelity," Grundy said. "If you compare the various senses, like sound and vision and touch, youll see that the first displays were simply monochrome, then we had 8-bit colour, then 16-bit, then true colour. With sound, we started off with simple beeps—square waves to a speaker—and then we went on to polyphonics, then stereo, then full Dolby surround. At the moment, haptics are just coming out of simple square wave vibrations."

Next Page: Haptics in the gaming industry.