Haptic technologies date back many decades. However, recent advances in sensor technologies – including mechanisms that can provide the user with a realistic sense of touch – are becoming more and more advanced.
In this article, we look at what haptic technologies are and explore some of the main areas where they are used.
NASA / Wikimedia Commons
Haptic technologies provide a way of recreating the sense of touch by applying a series of forces, vibrations and motions to the person using the haptic technology. It is also known as kinaesthetic communication. Haptic technologies can also be used alongside other sensory mechanisms to give the user a more realistic experience. Because it is a sensory technology, haptics work alongside sensors which can detect the environment that the technology is being operated in, be it in a game, virtual reality, an automobile or remote device, and provide an appropriate (and detectable) response.
There are three common ways in which a motional or vibrational response is given to the user, and these are eccentric rotating mass vibration (ERMV) motors, linear resonant actuators (LRAs) and piezo haptics sensors. Whilst the mechanism of how each one generates a response to the user is different, each one of these can vibrate with a such a force that it will be detected by the user, and this then enables them to make an appropriate decision based off the response.
This could be as simple as a being able to navigate a touch screen on a phone or an automobile’s dashboard, to something as complicated as crashing a car on a computer game and the controller vibrating. As well as generating a response via vibration, haptic technologies also possess a force feedback loop that manipulates the movement of the user beyond that of a basic vibration. The choice of which haptic technology to use often comes down to a combination of the desired response, the cost and the space available to incorporate the haptic unit.
Examples of Haptic Technology
One of the most widely known uses for haptic technology is within the gaming industry. Even though haptic technologies became well-known when the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect came out, their use in games consoles pre-dates this by some time—all the way back to the late 1990’s when Nintendo released the Rumble Pak for Nintendo 64 controllers and Sega released the Vibration Pack for the Dreamcast controllers; both of which vibrated under certain circumstances, such as when you crashed Mario into a wall whilst playing Mario Kart.
While the early adoptions of this technology were primitive compared to the haptic technologies we see nowadays, they did lay a foundation for modern day consoles—almost all of which now have built-in vibrational units into the controllers. Aside from games consoles, haptic technologies play a major role in virtual reality (VR) systems, enabling the user to recreate the sense of touch within a VR environment as if the object were real—whereas, before the introduction of haptics, it was only possible to visualize the virtual environment.
Teleoperations and Telerobotics
Teleoperations is when a user remotely controls a machine; telerobotics, on the other hand, involves the user controlling a robot. While cameras and sensors are used to determine the 3D environment around the machine, another important aspect lies in the surface characteristics of the environment. By employing haptics, the manipulation of the machine in the localized environment becomes more accurate and precise. This is because the haptic system can feedback force and surface information, in the form of force and pressure, at points of interest. The applications of teleoperations expand out from remote monitoring with drones to remote surgical applications—where the surgeon can “feel” the local environment without physically performing the surgery with their own hands.
Haptic technologies, in all forms, play an important role in the automotive industry, especially in technologies that directly engage the driver or other personnel in the automobile. Each type of haptic technology has a different use within automobiles. For example, ERMV motors are often used in touch screens, dashboards and built-in Sat Nav’s, as well as in central control systems that provide the driver with an early warning for when the engine is likely to overheat; or in parts of the automobile are about to electrically short-circuit. LRAs can again be used in central control systems, but their most useful function is as a safety measure and vibrational alert system to notify the driver when they are straying into other lanes, are speeding, or even when the sensors pick up that the driver might be drowsy. Piezo haptic sensors are primarily used within the touch screen of a dashboard, but they can provide a much greater degree of accuracy and will only vibrate the localized region that is being touched by the driver’s finger.