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See Inside September 2011

Patent Watch

Haptic computer interface



Courtesy of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

It’s great that your smartphone allows you to dial a cell number or adjust the volume on your favorite song just by tapping the screen, but it’s something of a one-sided relationship. No matter where you tap, it feels the same; no tactile feedback whatsoever. Don’t you ever hanker for something more?

A proposed interface from Verizon would change the smartphone experience. The idea, described in patent No. 7,952,498, is to create a mechanical apparatus below the screen that could elevate discrete portions of the surface in the shape of any graphic displayed in the pixel grid. Need to call home? A keypad would sprout in the shape of phone buttons. Want to skip a track on that Beatles album? Pause and fast-forward controls would rise up. Not only would these elevated portions provide more sensory stimulation, they would make keys easier to distinguish from one another, cutting back on mistakes. “What you would feel is a subtle, raised area on the screen,” says George Higa, a user-interface designer at Verizon who was recently granted the patent. The patent does not specify what Verizon would use to elevate the buttons on the screen, but  “technology moves so quickly, it could be any number of things,” Higa says. 

Researchers have demonstrated the ability to provide tactile feedback with an array of pins, air jets and an electric current. “Haptic feedback,” or feedback that is based on the sense of touch, “is the future of computing interfaces,” says Allison M. Okamura, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

But creating that feedback on a pocket-size gadget remains challenging. Researchers at Northwestern University have designed a device called the TPaD that can ultrasonically vibrate the screen, making delineated portions feel “slippery” and allowing programmers to modulate the friction on different parts of the screen, Okamura explains. But last she knew, the smallest of these devices was six inches high and a couple of inches thick.“While it would be terrific to have a device like the one [Verizon] describes, I just don’t know how it would fit into a phone,” Okamura says.

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