When Touch became a Revolution – The history and growth of Wearable Technology
The bridge to the outside World
Be it the Avatar, Minority Report or Iron Man, there is a common element that you can notice in most science fiction films. Very hardly can you see a futuristic narration where characters don’t smoothly interact with digital content that surrounds them. With just a swipe or a gesture, you see people accessing amazing levels of information regardless of the surrounding they are in. This kind of smooth interaction with the digital world through the sense of touch is something that could soon become a norm in our day to day life. Such has been the growth of Haptic Technology. In fact, touch is one of the most underrated of all the senses. It is touch that acts as a bridge between our body and the outside world. We use touch to gain information about our surroundings and to establish trust and social bond with the fellow beings. They play a vital role in our daily experience and this is also why touch is given so much prominence when it comes to immersiveness in the digital world. For a user to feel completely immersed in the world of content, he or she must flawlessly make a connection with it through the feel of touch.
A look back at the History
The earliest usage of Haptic technology can be traced back to large aircrafts that used servomechanism systems to regulate control surfaces. In such systems, external forces deployed aerodynamically to the control surfaces were not recognized at the controls and the missing normal forces were replicated through springs and weights. In lighter aircrafts that did not use servo systems, the vibrations were felt at the pilot’s controls as the aircraft approached a stall and this was a beneficial warning of an alarming flight situation. This control shake were not felt in systems that made use of servo control. To counter this, angle of attack was measured and when it reached a critical point, a stick shaker was employed to simulate the response of a simpler control system. Also there was a system that measured the servo force and signalled directly to a servo system in the control, known as force feedback.
Thomas D Shannon was granted the first US patent for tactile telephones in 1973. A. Michael Noll at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc created an early tactile man-machine communication system in early 1970s and it was patented to him in 1975. Interactor Vest, a wearable force-feedback was launched by Aura Systems in 1994. This device could be plugged into the audio output of a stereo, TV or VCR and the user could control the intensity of vibrations and filtering of high frequency sounds. Geir Jensen, a Norwegian, illustrated the idea of a wrist watch haptic device with a skin tap mechanism called Tap-in in 1995. The device would connect to a mobile phone via Bluetooth and tapping frequency patterns would recognize callers to a mobile and facilitate the wearer to reply using any set of selected short messages. The project was not pursued or published until 2015 and in the same year Apple started selling a wristwatch that included skin tap sensing of applications and alerts to mobile phone of the user.
Striking Modern Day Applications
At one stage or the other, we have all witnessed the power of immersiveness Haptic Technology can provide. A playstation or a video game set was all that we needed to forget everything happening around us. With such potential at their dispensary, it is no surprise that smart app designers, innovators and entrepreneurs came up with nourishing ideas that uplifted our standard of living. So, let us see some of the best modern day applications of Haptic Technology.
Sunu – Bracelet that helps visually impaired people navigate
The amazing advantage of technology is that the more it grows, the more it reduces the limitations for the differently abled. Sunu, Inc a Boston based startup introduced Sunu Band, that is exclusively designed for visually impaired people. Using ultrasonic technology, Sunu’s proximity sensor distinguishes objects in the environment. As a person moves around the environment, Sunu emits ultrasonic waves that hit and bounce from the objects that are in the person’s path and echoes them back to Sunu which results in a vibration. Sunu’s indoor mode has a range of about 8 feet and they help detect entrances and exits in buildings, passages in supermarket and space between people among other objects. The outdoor mode has a broader range of thirteen feet and it helps to detect trash cans, lamp posts, hanging branches from trees etc. Sunu also has an additional attachment called ‘Sunu Tag’ which is a beacon like device. This can be attached to any object and the band will vibrate when the object is nearby. If the user has missed or left something behind them, Sunu can notify that too. The haptic clock can help users sense time through vibrations. Thus, Sunu can be a massive aid in the daily life of visually impaired people as they can help improve their awareness, avoid collisions and also find misplaced objects without anyone’s help.
Paradox Robotics – For Advanced Surgeries
Minimally invasive surgeries are gaining immense popularity and it was reported that in 2015 alone almost 652,000 minimally invasive robotic surgeries were performed. But, in all those scenarios, each surgeon operated without the advantage of sense of touch. Now, imagine a surgeon experiencing haptic feedback of a person’s heart as he maneuvers the robotic arm and being able to fix the problem without needing to crack open a chest cavity. This is what young Simone Braunstein aims to achieve with her startup ‘Paradox Robotics’. This haptic surgical controller has three parts: the gripper that makes contact with the patient’s body, operator control glove that goes to a surgeon’s hand and the control board which gives power to the system. Simone’s startup has an interesting tagline – “Because soft robotics doesn’t have to be hard”. An understanding of the operator glove is all that is needed to stamp the fact that their motto is true word by word. The operator control glover was designed using a soft robot to extend pressure on a surgeon’s hand. Imagine that a surgeon is controlling a robotic gripper inside someone’s body. If the gripper grasps an object, the surgeon would feel the exact shape and pressure on their hand and the device accurately replicates the feeling one would experience if he or she is actually touching the patient. This would help decrease surgical complications and improve patient safety. The project won some of the top honors in one of the most prestigious pre college science competitions – the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Simone Braunstein, the master brain behind the project was just 18 when she won the award! She was also named as one of ‘Top 10 under 20: Young Innovators to Watch’ by Consumer Electronics Week.
Breathe – An Apple Application For Meditation.
Meditation brings wisdom said Gautama Buddha. Regardless of geography or civilizations, today it is applied all around the world to aid in our busy and hectic life style. Thus, it should come as no surprise that one of the technological giants Apple introduced a new platform to help people meditate. During the Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) in June 2016, Apple’s Director of Fitness and Health technologies introduced “Breathe”, an app exclusively designed for Apple Watch. Imagine you are so loaded up with work that you feel an urgent need to relax. You just cannot allow yourself to fall into pieces now as that will ruin your entire day. You need a short break that is relaxing so that you can get back to your work with complete focus. What do you need to do? Just get hold of your Apple Watch! Using ‘Breathe’, you can specify how long or how often do you need to relax. The watch will then use haptic technology to vibrate your wrist and remind you that it is time to calm down. As you slowly breathe in and out, the watch will lightly pat your wrist and move you through the target speed of your breathe. The sensation is exactly like that of someone actually tapping your arm! Once the users begin, the application reminds them to “be still and bring attention to your breath”. Once the session is over, users will get a complete summary screen that indicates how many breathe sessions they completed during the day and the heart rate measured during the last session.
Ultrahaptics – Feel Without Touch
How do you feel the sensation of wind? You cannot see it, you cannot grab it using your hands but yet you can feel it. This is exactly what ‘Ultrahaptics’, an England based startup is trying to bring into the haptics arena. By using sounds known as ultrasounds that are too high for humans to hear, Ultrahaptics aims to create the sensation of touch without any physical contact. The technology of ultrasounds have been in use in pregnancy for quite some time now, but its application in haptics technology opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. To make a user feel something through sound, Ultrahaptics makes use of multiple tiny speakers that generate sounds of very high frequency. When soundwaves focus at the same point same time, the strong force behind the sound gives a user a feel as if he or she has touched something. Through Ultrahaptics, the goal of Virtual Reality can come to a complete circle. Through visuals and sounds, VR does give a feel of wandering around a 3D space but the feel of immersion disappears when you try to touch an object within the 3D space. With Ultrahaptics you will be able to feel things in Virtual Reality using mid air touch. The company claims that they can create any kind of vibration on the hand. From smooth sensations to a Star Wars kind of Force lightning, rain drops, foams and everything!
Digits – 3D Hand Tracker
At the annual conference of User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) 2012, Microsoft introduced a new technology known as ‘Digits’, that could track hand movements using a device worn on the user’s wrist. They can detect hand position in 3D and then convert them into software commands. This means that a user could swipe their hand to turn the pages in a file or nip their fingers to zoom into a document. ‘Digits’ can also show a human hand on screen when necessary. The prototype launched in UIST consisted of an infrared camera, laser line generator, diffuse illuminator and an inertial-measurement unit. Microsoft aims to cater this device as an input method for tablets, cell phones and Kinect. When the finite details of Digit combine with the full body tracking of Kinect, it could make the whole gaming experience more realistic. Since the device is not depended upon any external infrastructure, a user is free to move around while interacting with their electronics. As human computer interface dives into deep horizons every year, technologies such as ‘Digits’ will have a huge role to play in how we connect with computers.
Senseg Haptic Tech – Feel Tactile Objects On Screen
Suppose you are playing a game like Need for Speed and you wonder how that astonishing car would feel like in real. Or when you shop online, you feel like testing the quality of the shirt or the dining table you are about to buy. Senseg Haptic Tech might just have the answer you are looking for. The technology is deviced for tablets and other devices with touchscreen support that provides users a feel of tactile sensation through the screen. The tactile panel of Senseg makes use of electrostatic fields to replicate different levels of resistance and it allows them to create a sensation of texture on a complete flat screen. Compared to other haptic technologies, there is no dependence on moving parts or physical change to the screen and thereby Senseg can be adapted to the same devices that we use today. They use electric tixels instead of pixels that help pull the finger skin towards a computer screen surface and the textures are created using an ultra-thin, ultra-durable coating. So, the next time you play an instrument in a music application or hold a gun in a game, you might be able to get a real feel of them!
REVEL – Augment The Sense of Touch
REVEL – a new wearable tactile technology introduced by Disney Research aims to improve a user’s tactile apprehension of the physical world. They can provide artificial tactile sensations on touch screens as well as everyday objects and surfaces such as furniture, walls and even human skin. Based on Reverse Electrovibration, it generates a varying electrical field around a user’s skin by infusing a weak electrical signal into anywhere in the body. As a user slides his or her fingers around the surface of the object, he or she experiences a very unique tactile texture that elevates the physical object. Based on the shape, size, amplitude and frequency, the resulting tactile sensations will also be different. The technology can massively empower the next generation of touchscreens, augmented reality and even help blind people find their way around.