Web-based haptic technology on the horizon

August 31, 2007 While sound and sight are the easiest senses to reach with conventional media, they are by no means the most sophisticated. Haptic technology is designed to communicate through the subtle and sensitive channels of the tactile senses, which include perceptions of temperature and pressure. And researchers at Queen’s University, Belfast, say a fully networked, haptic future is not as far away as it sounds. Professor Alan Marshall has begun a three year project to design the network architectures needed to support the addition of touch to the computer human interface.

The benefit of haptic technology is that it allows us to communicate with computers, and other users, in a way that’s far more natural and comfortable than squinting at a glaring monitor, or straining our wrists over a keyboard. Haptics could also prove useful for people who, due to visual impairment, are unable to effectively operate computers as they are made today. And by making available a whole new category of sensations, haptic technology will open up gigantic possibilities for developers. Marshall imagines a future where online shoppers can feel the garment they want to buy, and where gamers feel the force of each virtual impact.

Marshall’s team is dedicated to networking haptic technology. At present, almost all haptic devices are only capable of being connected to a single stand-alone system. Making haptic technology suitable for the internet means allowing users to share the tactile information without being overly affected by lagging or bandwidth issues. This initiative is the latest exploration of haptics commissioned by Queen’s University. The University performed the first long distance tele-haptic coloration over the internet in 2003, and is currently leading a project that allows the blind and visually impaired to access web content.

The seeds of haptic technology have been evident for about a decade, however it has usually been applied in the bluntest possible fashion. Vibration alerts for incoming calls or messages on mobile phones are haptic, as are rumble features in the hand controllers for video game consoles. More recently, we’ve seen haptic arm-wrestling, haptic workstations, and haptic information displays.

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