May 13, 2024 - Technology

The quest to "feel" textures on your phone

Animated gif of a person holding a cell phone with the screen shifting between textures of a sweater, sand, and wood grain

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Imagine if you could touch your phone screen to feel the texture of that shirt you might buy, the roughness of a sand dune, or the striations of a block of wood.

  • That's the promise of surface haptics, a branch of mechanical engineering that aims to improve the displays in our automobiles, on kitchen appliances, and, yes, on cellphones and iPads.

Why it matters: Improved surface haptics on our vehicle displays could prevent accidents by helping us keep our eyes on the road while we fumble around for the music or climate controls.

  • The tech could also help doctors deliver better telemedicine, enhance VR experiences, and improve "hands-on" education and training.

Driving the news: Northwestern University engineers have built touchscreens that enable us to feel a variety of sensations — such as sticky, rough and fuzzy.

  • In other words, they've produced "a touchscreen that touches you back," as Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern, tells Axios.

What they're saying: "You should be able to feel when you are on your phone, feel things that you see — not [just] feel the whole device vibrate, the way you do now when you hit a key," Peshkin said.

  • "When you're looking at something on your phone that you'd naturally touch if it were right in front of you — you'd stroke your hand over it, you'd go like, 'What does that feel like?'"
  • "You want to be able to feel that on glass too — and we can."

Zoom in: Tanvas, a company that Peshkin and his longtime Northwestern collaborator J. Edward Colgate founded in 2010 to commercialize the technology, developed an iPad-size tablet that allowed you to touch the screen and feel smooth skin vs. unshaven skin, corduroy fabric, sandpaper, striations or a grid.

  • "You could just stroke your hand across it and feel these different material properties, as well as grab a rotator ring — that kind of thing," said Peshkin.
  • The device "couldn't do warmth or softness" however, like the feeling of holding someone's hand.

Case study: A Gillette advertising campaign used Tanvas' technology to show the difference between a clean-shaven face and a stubbly one.

  • The spot won an award at the 2018 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Yes, but: Tanvas ran out of money and closed its doors last year.

  • Cellphones and tablets need to be rugged, inexpensive and free of battery-hungry applications — and surface haptics presents problems for all those requirements.
  • "It's a little challenging whether it's commercially worth it to integrate that into phones and screens," said Peshkin, a bit wistfully.

Separately, a French company called hap2u says it's working on surface haptics for the automotive industry, but appears dormant.

What we're watching: Peshkin, Colgate and their lab continue to develop surface haptics, which ideally will prove useful one day in automotive displays, as well as our cherished phones and tablets.

Zoom out: An overarching goal of surface haptics is to create a "tactile internet."

  • It's a broad vision that involves using 5G technology and beyond "to enable real-time interaction of haptic data over the Internet," as one research paper put it.
  • Mark Zuckerberg's vision for the metaverse — as articulated in 2021, when he changed Facebook's name to Meta — includes the idea of an ultra-immersive "embodied internet."

Fun fact: In addition to pioneering the field of surface haptics, Colgate and Peshkin invented "cobots," or robots designed to work in tandem with humans, in 1996.

The bottom line: While phones will continue to do more whiz-bang things — from monitoring air quality to projecting holographic displays — they'll still be limited by their form factor.

  • "It's still glass, and it's always going to feel kind of cold and kind of hard," Peshkin said.
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