Blind World Magazine

Touch Screens That Touch Back.

December 11, 2005.
The New York Times.

Americans are familiar with the touch screens on A.T.M.'s, casino games and flight check-in kiosks. Curiously, though, none of these technologies actually take advantage of a user's sense of touch. Despite our skin's enormous ability to give us feedback about our surroundings, our eyes dominate our other senses.

That may be about to change. Developments in haptic technology - that is, technology that simulates the sense of touch - suggest that our machines are about to start touching back. Immersion, a company in San Jose, Calif., has developed new systems that enable touch screens to give tactile feedback: when you press the buttons on a screen, you actually feel them click, as if they were buttons on a touch-tone phone - even though the screen is not actually being depressed.

This is achieved, counterintuitively, by moving the glass of the touch-screen display quickly from side to side by about 0.2 to 0.3 millimeters - creating the illusion that the glass is moving up and down far more than it actually is. "Whether you move the glass sideways or in displacement, most people perceive it as displacement because that's what they're expecting," says Mike Levin, vice president of Immersion's industrial control group. "The brain is tricked into believing that it's a press motion."

Giving the sense of touch its due could have many advantages. In cars, haptic touch screens could tell drivers which dashboard instrument they have adjusted without requiring them to take their eyes off the road, preventing accidents by reducing "glance time." In hospitals, touch screens would be easier to sanitize than keyboards. And as with many successful technologies, learning to use haptic touch screens is intuitive. "There's an instant 'Aha!"' Levin says. "It just feels right."

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