SXSW: Touch feedback is the next frontier for smart devices and home electronics

Haptic tech is one of the most exciting emerging technologies of today, offering the promise of replicating one of our most important senses – touch and textural feedback – in digital form. The field holds so much promise, in fact, that haptics are set to be worth $30 billion by 2020. But so far, mainstream innovation in haptics has largely been limited to vibrate alerts on smartphones. This weekend, a panel of researchers got together at SXSW Interactive to discuss what’s next in this field, and how to get consumers interested. Here are five things we learned.

1. We’re right at the beginning of haptic tech

Touch is the sense that comes to us first, arriving in utero. As such, it’s one of our most intuitive senses, and one of the hardest to replicate or mimic in virtual form. As Susan Hassler, editor in chief at IEEE Spectrum, put it: “How do you get a robot to know what squishy is? How do you turn that into code?” Early attempts to introduce haptic tech at mainstream level have been defined by vibrating ring tones, and more recently, the Apple Watch’s heartbeat transmissions. These are small steps towards the rich language that haptic tech will eventually become.

Apple Watch

2. Innovators in this space stand to gain a lot

The immaturity of this tech means that early adopters and experimenters stand out by default, because not many brands are trying out haptics at a commercial level. “People don’t understand how to utilise it in design,” said Chad Sampanes, director of UX research at Immersion. The subtleties of haptic tech – particularly ultrasound haptics – mean that developers need to work out which specific frequencies to use, what patterns of air pressure and how long to use haptics for in each burst. There’s a lot to get wrong – “even the wrong user scenario makes it annoying” – but equally, “there’s so much opportunity right now, you can really distinguish yourself” by moving into the space sensitively and with nuance.

3. Touch can measurably enhance wellness 
Haptic technology has a key role to play in enhancing wellness and providing emotional care. Paro, the therapeutic robot that comes in the shape (and faux fur) of a seal, is a prime example. Paro has found success in care homes, where guests benefit measurably from the stress relief and emotional companionship that it provides, simply by way of sympathetic movements, gentle responses to interaction, and the touch feedback of that soft, strokable fur.
Paro therapeutic robot
4. Haptics are better on your second experience

We need to get beyond the novelty value of touch tech, said Marianna Obrist, a reader in interactions design at University of Sussex and part of the team behind the haptics at Tate Sensorium. For that exhibition, she explained, repeat visitors reported that the first time they tried the haptic tech, it was overwhelming; the second time they tried it, they got much more from the experience. They were able to focus on the art, enjoying a powerful experience with the sensory stimulation in the background. “Give people the time to consciously take in the experience we are offering them,” she continued. With haptics, “we need to learn and develop our senses, and to train them.”

5. Customised touch is coming next
Once people become more comfortable with haptic tech, said Chad Sampanes, “they will want to modify it. They understand what they like and what they don’t like, and they want to customise haptics to their own ‘flavour’.” This means personalised patterns, frequencies, and types of touch feedback. Get ready for your tech to touch you back.


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