Our smartphones and tablets may be able to show us what things look and sound like, but with their flat glass screens, there's no way that they could indicate what something feels like ... right? Actually, they may soon be able to do that, too. Researchers at Disney Research, Pittsburgh have developed a system that lets users' fingertips feel a simulated bump through a flat screen, that corresponds to a bump in the displayed image.

Ordinarily, when we feel a bump as we're sliding our finger across a smooth surface, we do so because the increase in friction created by the bump causes the skin in our fingertip to stretch ever so slightly.

In order to simulate that friction, the Disney team uses a conductive display in which the electrostatic forces between the finger and the glass can be modulated by applying more or less voltage to the screen. An algorithm keeps track of the location and speed of the user's moving fingertip, and adjusts the "electrovibrations" to match the topography of the part of the image that's being touched.

So far, the images must be either 3D models or the product of scans done with depth sensors such as the Kinect, so the algorithm has depth data to work with.

According to project leader Ali Israr, traditional haptic feedback systems draw on a library of pre-programmed effects that are individually brought into play as needed. By contrast, the Disney algorithm customizes the amount of friction "on the fly," allowing it to operate quickly enough that it can be used even with moving video.

That speed could potentially also allow for real-time tactile images to be obtained through portable depth-sensing cameras, letting visually-impaired users "feel" objects in front of them.

Disney has already integrated related technology into its REVEL system, and tech company Senseg is developing similar technology.

More information is available in the video below.

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