What is 'Haptics'

Haptics refers to the science of touch in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Haptics allows machines to work with human skin receptors and nerves to provide an additional way to communicate besides the typical methods of hearing and seeing or using a traditional keyboard, mouse or video game controller.

Haptics can provide an additional layer of information without overwhelming the other senses, or provide information that the other senses cannot. It can also provide information remotely that could normally only be provided in person, such as how a piece of clothing feels during an online shopping experience. Haptics has many applications in gaming, virtual reality, vehicle safety, medicine and national defense. Haptics can help a user find an object or avoid an obstacle by alerting and guiding the user's movement and increasing situational awareness in both real and virtual settings.

BREAKING DOWN 'Haptics'

Touch is made up of tactile sensations, or things your skin feels, and kinesthetic sensations, which have to do with the position of your body, how it’s moving and the forces it encounters. By incorporating kinesthetic and tactile sensations, the brain understands human interactions with the world through touch. With haptics, as a person moves through the world, technology can fool them into thinking they are feeling something that isn’t really there.

Practical Applications

Haptics can give machine users abilities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, a vibrating armband uses haptics to help athletes with impaired vision learn to improve their performance since they can’t watch video feedback of themselves or their competitors. The armband can be programmed to teach the user to emulate a pro hitter’s swing and develop muscle memory for the optimal way to move in various athletic situations. Non-vision-impaired athletes can also benefit from this technology.

A haptic steering wheel could vibrate to alert a driver in their blind spot, or tell the driver which way to turn as an alternative or complement to GPS voice navigation. It could also increase road safety by preventing lost drivers from looking at their devices.

The army has developed a haptic interface in the form of a vibrating belt to help soldiers navigate in the darkness. This belt offers a superior alternative to night goggles and backlit GPS devices. It indicates the eight cardinal directions and is connected to a GPS navigation system, a digital compass and an accelerometer to detect which way a soldier is going. The belt’s vibrations guide the soldier as to which direction to move in and when to stop moving. This technology means that soldiers don’t have to take their eyes off their surroundings or put down their weapons to look at a GPS device, increasing their safety and effectiveness on the field.

Another application for haptics is in emergency situations. A haptic sonar glove allows users to feel objects they can’t reach underwater, which could be helpful in rescuing flood victims. The glove uses echolocation to find an object in the water and motor-propelled pulsing jets of water to provide feedback to the glove wearer. The glove is sleek enough to allow the user to pick up objects once they are located.

Haptics also have many potential uses in mobile devices, from making on-screen keyboards easier to use by creating a sensation of texture in the keys, to making games more fun by providing sensory feedback. The Force Touch integration system in Apple’s iPhones along with Apple’s Taptic Engine for MacBooks created a new way of communicating with devices through touch. The Taptic Engine gives users the sensation of pressing a mechanical button when they’re using the computer’s haptic trackpad, although they’re really just depressing a static piece of glass. One challenge of adding haptics to these devices is creating a battery-efficient haptic motor. The Samsung Anycall Haptic phone implemented this technology in 2008 with 22 different sensations users can feel through its large touch screen.

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