Get Handsy with Haptic Tech

Haptic technology is bringing the sense of touch to interface design and virtual reality.

Today's etymology trivia: The term haptics is derived from the Greek haptikós, meaning "able to grasp or perceive." In digital terminology, it refers to the use of tactile sensations or sense of touch as a way to interact with electronic devices. Haptics is a busy area of research and development just now, particularly with interface design, virtual reality applications and mobile devices. Here we touch on some recent development. See what we did there? Above: The

DLR Haptic User Gerät

, or HUG, was developed at the German Aerospace Center. It has two light-weight robot arms that, when engaged, give the wearer tactile and force-feedback sensations. It was designed for training programs for astronauts, mechanics and people needing limb rehabilitation.

Apple's most recent would-be game-changer, the iWatch, incorporates the company's new Taptic Engine technology, which uses precisely tuned electromagnetic oscillations to approximate the sensation of a tap on your wrist. Apple has also embedded the tech in new MacBoom trackpads, which produces the feeling of a mechanical click on a stationary piece of glass.

A recently filed

patent application

from Apple suggests that the company is just warming up, so to speak. Titled "Touch Surface for Simulating Materials," the patent describes a process by which haptic actuators would be combined with temperature-changing surfaces. For instance, an image of steel would feel cold and smooth, but wood would feel warm and grainy.

With virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift on the horizon, haptic technology is ramping up quickly as a way to supplement the VR experience. The

Hands Omni

gaming glove, designed by a team at Rice University, uses a system of small inflatable air bladders to approximate touching, pressing or gripping a virtual object.

Air is often the medium of choice in many haptic systems. The

AIREAL

device, developed at Disney's research labs, projects a vortex or ring of air which can travel relatively long distances while retaining its shape and speed. The vortex collapses upon striking the user's skin, creating a tactile sensation.

The British company

Ultrahaptics

, affiliated with the University of Bristol, is developing several technologies that use ultrasound to project tactile sensations through the air. The idea is to create ultrasonic virtual objects -- like control knobs and panels -- that can be manipulated without any physical contact at all.

One of Ultrahaptics many areas of research involves combining ultrasound with visual and audio elements to create haptic holograms. Using motion sensors, the system tracks the exact position of your hand and directs ultrasound to approximate basic shapes, like a sphere or cube. The visual elements are digitally inserted in the image above -- the technology for freestanding visual holograms isn't quite here yet. But you get the picture.

The University of Sussex recently published results on a

series of experiments

that explored some of the psychological aspects of haptic design. According to the study, certain tactile cues on the hand can trigger or reinforce particular emotions. For instance, sharp bursts of air to the area around the thumb generate excitement, and slow stimulation of the pinkie causes sadness. Who knew?

Some new initiatives in haptics aren't that high-tech at all, but rather take advantage of existing mechanical systems like the "rumble" motors in game console controllers. Google Play recently announced a new section of games that provide haptic feedback in mobile games as well, using your phone's vibrate function. With Angry Birds, for instance, you can feel the tension of the rubber band, or the crash of the falling structures.

Artists have been incorporating haptic elements in their work for centuries, particularly in areas like sculpture and textile art. But technology has opened up new vistas for art you can touch -- consider the intriguing idea of

haptic poetry

. An ongoing project at the University of Edinburgh is even exploring ways to bring

dance and choreography

to non-sighted audiences using tablets.

For those interested in a truly comprehensive haptic experience, the U.K. company Tesla Studios is hoping to bring their

Tesla Suit

to market later this year. Designed to be compatible with the Oculus Rift and newer game console systems, the Tesla is billed as a full-body suit with haptic feedback gloves, vest and trousers. Yes, haptic trousers. And we're not even going to mention the contemporary phenomenon known as the

erotic haptic device

.