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Taptic, haptics, and the body fantastic: The real Apple Watch revolution

Brian S Hall | Oct. 7, 2014
The next user interface requires your body. You will literally feel signals chock-full of timely, contextual data delivered from all manner of touchscreens, gadgets and wearables.

What might app developers create using the taptic engine? Right now, that's difficult to say. An Apple spokesperson told me the company is not yet ready to announce "any plans or details regarding the WatchKit SDK," though hinted such plans would be forthcoming.

It's easy to imagine the near-term possibilities. Perhaps a Watch weather app will zap you when you are about to leave the house without an umbrella. You may feel an annoying pinch as you pass the grocery store on the way home from work, a physical reminder to not forget the milk. An hour before lunch, a short series of hot taps could mean the (second-generation) Apple Watch senses your blood sugar is too low, discreetly reminding you to eat something.

Can touch this
A caress on the arm means something different than a stern squeeze of the shoulder, or a pat on the back. These minor physical actions convey a great deal: love, concern, gratitude, disappointment. As haptic technology evolves, our bodies are poised to become the next computing interface.

Fitness trackers, smartwatches, even Star Trek: The Next Generation-like wearables on our shirt will use haptics to alert us, remind us, and share something uniquely human, a secret between friends and loved ones, perhaps. These interactions will come in the form of vibrations, pressure, repetition, customized force, a distinctive sequence of touches and tactile feedback.

Last year, Apple was awarded a patent for a haptic feedback system for use on multi-touch surfaces. The patent listed a "virtual keyboard" as an example of how this system might work. That's just one small possibility of what this technology will support, as this Disney research project reveals:

Game on
Forget buzzing controllers. Haptics for gesture controls, alerts, even pain, could revolutionize gaming. Just last month, Miraisens showed off its haptic technology for use in virtual reality gaming.

The firm's small, coin-shaped device delivers real-time tactile feedback for users immersed inside a virtual 3D world, tricking the gamer into thinking they are pushing a physical button or actually feeling a gold coin or magic sword, for example. Since gaming is really just another mode of learning, expect haptics to spread to educational software, interactive exhibits and be used for teaching music, among other use cases.

Healing touch
It's not all fun and games, of course. Haptics can replicate human touch. That means it can convey human emotions. The Babybe system was designed to transmit a mother's heartbeat to her premature baby.

Premature babies are typically kept in isolation for the first several weeks of life. This is medically necessary but disrupts and potentially limits the emotional and physical bond between child and mother. The Babybe system helps mitigate this by using haptics to replicate the mother's heartbeat, as if the baby was laying on her chest.


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