Haptics could easily be dismissed as boring old vibrations that alert you to messages, emails, fitness goals or the latest snap of someone's brunch on Instagram. But haptics technology, which includes all manner of tactile sensations, is evolving at quite a lick. Prototype touchscreens can use ultrasonics to create the 'feel' of different objects, and haptic motors are becoming smaller and more flexible.
And that means haptics have a bright future in wearables. Unlike smartphones and tablets, which rely on you looking at them, the lack of display space and digital interfaces in wearable technology makes haptic feedback an even more powerful tool. It saves on battery and makes interacting with tech on the go more discreet and less dorky. In fact, the whole haptics scene is on the cusp of evolving from smartphone-esque vibrating prompts into something much more useful – with a hint of sci-fi.
Vibration at the core
Haptics are already a standard feature in many smartwatches, smart jewellery and fitness trackers. But the release of the Apple Watch saw Tim Cook's Cupertino crew introduce the Taptic engine, which currently offers more subtle feedback and vibrations through the use of motorised actuators than its rivals.
With the upcoming release of watchOS 3, Apple is pushing things further. Breathe, its new app designed to coach people through stress-relieving breathing patterns, uses the Taptic engine to deliver subtle physical prompts on when to inhale and exhale. It's designed to make sure the wearer is getting the exercises right, instead of flopping in a hyperventilating mess.
It's not ground-breaking, but Apple is showing how clever use of haptics makes a relatively compact and stylish wearable more functional without changing its core design. With Samsung's Gear S3 watch on the horizon, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Korean giant making deeper use of haptics to catch up with the Apple Watch too.
Shaking up wristwear
Beyond what we now think of as the classic smartwatch set-up, there are some companies focusing on using tactile sensation to replace the display, not just enhance it.
Soundbrenner has effectively made a wearable metronome. Dubbed the Pulse, the smartwatch-style device uses haptic vibrations to beat out a rhythm the wearer can feel on their skin rather than listen to the tick-tock of a traditional metronome. The Doppel smartwatch is another slave to the haptic rhythm, only its vibrations are used to subtly alter the wearer's mood with rhythmic pulses; fast for energetic spurts, slow for calming moments.
When we caught up with Doppel at its London HQ recently, co-founder Jack Hooper explained the startup's goal for its first device: "What we asked is – can we create an effect using rhythm that can change how you feel, that's unobtrusive and silent?"
Take Moment as another example; it's a smartwatch-shaped wearable which eschews a normal display and instead uses haptics to feedback navigation information. For directions, the right corner of the wearable vibrates to signal a right turn when using navigation apps, while vibration patterns can be assigned to individual contacts, so when generic Dave sends you a message you know it's him rather than Tom, Dick or Harry. For cyclists and drivers this could be a much safer option than glancing down at a traditional smartwatch while on the move.
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Experimental wearable project Tactic takes the idea of haptics in smartwatches and runs with it. Inventor Steve Hoefer describes Tactic as "giving sonar to the blind", as the wrist-worn wearable aims to help visually impaired people navigate their surroundings through the use of ultrasonic pulses and sensors. These detect objects in the vicinity and use servo motors to provide physical pressure to the wearer's wrist to indicate how close they are to an obstacle. We've seen a similar bit of headgear from Chaotic Moon's 'invisible UI' experiments for precisely the same purpose.
"When objects are far away there is little or no pressure. The closer the object the firmer the pressure," explained Hoefer, who said Tacit requires almost no training to use. While it's still a prototype, Tacit shows that niche haptics-focussed wearables are far more than just gimmicks. They could be genuinely useful, if not life-changing.
The same could be said about Lechal, a startup specialising in shoes and insoles that come embedded with haptics used to help people with impaired sight navigate a route. Using small sensors and actuators the smart footwear connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone's local map and GPS and uses specific vibration patterns to signal to the wearer when it's time to turn.
Putting haptic tech into insoles and other wearables normally has the effect of bulking them out. While the actuators that power the vibrations are tiny, they still add take up precious millimetres and add unwanted girth to normally svelte devices. The increase in weight of the iPhone 6S over its predecessor is often attributed to the extra bulk the Taptic engine actuator adds.
Novasentis is looking to solve this problem with the wafer thin haptic actuator it created out of an electromechanical polymer. "It's like a piece of paper; very thin and flexible," explained Novasentis CEO Francois Jeanneau. "When you apply different electrical voltage the actuator can vibrate the surface of the product it is attached to."
The size and flexibility of the actuators mean several of them can be added to a wearable, whereas traditional motorised versions would take up too much space and increase weight. So Novasentis' tech could be embedded into a smartwatch strap rather than the watch itself – meaning smaller devices and multiple interaction points.
Once Novasentis nails down the mass production of its actuators, slated for the end of 2016, we could see them in smart clothing (or perhaps even temp tech tattoos) as their size and flexibility makes them less intrusive than a shirt full of motorised actuators. Haptic underwear anyone?
Clothing with clout
Arguably, it's with smart clothing and accessories that haptics stand to be put to the best use. One early example is the Nadi, a pair of smart fitness tights developed by Wearable Experiments, which use variable haptic feedback to nudge the wearer into holding the correct pose when they are doing yoga or other form-based activities.
In real time, the wearer will receive tactile vibrations of varying frequency and intensity based on the position and angle of their body. Displays are next to useless here and though the features might work with audio, this system is private and precise.
The flipside to hyper-connected self fitness is the vest-like gaming accessories that take the action happening on screen and translate it into gut-punching physical force. Some might remember the Nintendo 64's Rumble Pack ushering in the era of haptic feedback for games. But Kor-FX is adamant that its "environmental realism" wearable goes well beyond simple shakes and vibrations. It uses transducers that echo haptic feedback through the chest cavity of its wearers to enhance the audio of explosions, or the blades of an attack chopper.
While you may prefer your sofa-based gaming session to be less intense, the advent of VR headsets is already prompting the rise of haptic accessories that add more immersion to the head-mounted experience.
While both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can be used with console controllers with force feedback, the feeling of physical touch in VR is still lacking, which is jarring when VR headsets go some ways to tricking the body that it's on a space station and not in a muggy demonstration booth.
Tactical Haptics might have the answer in the form of its Reactive Grip motion controller prototype, which uses haptics to replicate the feeling of gripping an object. It does this by using sliding plates on the handle of the controller to simulate physical feedback, like the kick of a gun or hitting someone with a sword. The company reckons this holds the key to making interactions with virtual objects more engaging.
Going down a more specialist route, Striker VR has created a model gun that uses electromagnetic haptic feedback to provide realistic physical recoil for VR shooting games. It's not likely to win any favour with anti-gun and anti-game violence campaigners, but it's more proof that haptic accessories are crucial to making virtual experiences more physical.
With mainstream players like Apple pushing what haptics can do for the smartwatch, together with smaller startups finding new niches to fill and the trend for VR gaming accessories, it's clear that the role of haptics in the next wave of wearables will only get bigger.
Don't be too surprised, when 2020 rolls around, to find yourself enjoying a massage from an actuator-loaded vest, managing your mood with a wrist wearable and experiencing Holodeck-style virtual experiences that feel just as physical as the real thing.