Will haptic feedback spell the end for mechanical HMIs?

October 10, 2016 OpenSystems Media

Technology evolves rapidly, but changing the way we interact with technology is relatively glacial. The mechanical button and dial have reigned supreme for decades and while the advent of touchscreens revolutionized the human-machine interfaces (HMIs), it seems no one is ready to say goodbye to our mechanical friends. To inspire a willingness to deviate from our comfort zone, a new technology must bring clear benefits inaccessible to existing methods.

Haptic feedback does so. The technology employs an ultrasonic speaker array. Ultrahaptics is driving this beyond the natural inclination to pitch this as a “3D” touchscreen advancement – which won’t capture consumer imagination sufficiently. Yes, there are virtual buttons, switches, and dials, but the capability of producing virtual textures and projecting sensations to individual fingertips, without relying on them to pinpoint a virtual object in thin air, really sets it apart. It’s incredibly difficult to describe in mere text. Thankfully they’ve created a video that can.

So what do these capabilities really mean? One mode of Ultrahaptics’ demonstration platform replicates the sensation of bubbles popping on your palm. Exciting? Yes! Useful? Not really.

Another mode creates a virtual force field – effectively an air cushion one has to consciously push their hand through – now we’re talking. The use case presented was a halogen cooktop, the force field becoming active (and stronger) the hotter the surface becomes, preventing the cook from inadvertently burning themselves unless they make the conscious decision to ignore their senses and force their hand through. Deploying the technology within a stove also facilitates replacing the mechanical buttons and dials that are invariably dirty with mid-air virtual ones, improving hygiene and cleanliness.

On the subject of hygiene, it’s well documented that our beloved mechanical buttons in public places are breeding grounds for bacteria – they’re literally teeming with them. Such buttons controlling elevators, entrance security, and ATMs are the worst of the worst. Replacing these with virtual mid-air equivalents not only removes this issue over night, but increases security as no longer can a human or hidden camera observe your PIN entries.

When combined with augmented and virtual reality, the possibilities for this technology are fascinating or, indeed, terrifying. During the demonstration, my mind conceived of a ‘nightmare cube’, with augmented reality showing me swarms of wasps buzzing in my ear and haptic technology convincing my senses that they’re landing on my skin. Let’s just use this technology for good, please.

Rory Dear, European Editor/Technical Contributor
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