So much of our standard technology already capitalizes on human touch—smartphones, purchasing screens—and now it’s set to be harnessed by health care, retail, employers, and more, in surprising and revolutionary ways. It could add a new level of dimension to the world for people with disabilities or prosthetic limbs, make virtual reality experiences that much more realistic, and it could even bring us the holographic, mid-air dashboards and keyboards that we now only see in science fiction movies.
Haptic technology, as it’s known, uses pressure and signals to replicate the signals human nerves process when we touch something. It can communicate facial expressions to the blind and embed prosthetic limbs with artificial sense of touch. And in these industries, it’s poised to change everything.
Sometimes, a highly-specialized surgeon is thousands of miles away from a patient who needs them. For the most part, today, that means an emergency flight as a patient’s time ticks away.
But what if that surgeon could perform a tricky procedure remotely, using robotic and haptic technology? Cambridge Research & Development is testing a haptic system that would allow for tactile signals to a remote surgeon as they operate on a faraway patient using camera technology and robotics. The system, which would communicate via the cloud with the robotic instruments that are in contact with the patient, would be able to apply pressure to the remote surgeon’s head (so as not to disturb their hands) and variate that pressure depending on the pressure being applied by the instrument. Someday, those robotic systems could be able to operate more independently and with less input from the individual surgeon, drawing on a massive cloud-stored database to pick responses to different conditions.
Mobile and online shopping might be the standard today, but there’s an obvious experiential loss if you’re just clicking “Add to cart”: You can’t hold the item in your hand or feel its surface. Haptics could bring those textures onto your smartphone, sending vibrations and pressures through the surface that replicate what your fingers would experience if you were feeling the actual item. Smartphone manufacturers are onto the trend, and multiple research groups are predicting that, provided retailers can reliably store sensation-related data online, haptic retail is set to become the next big industry investment.
Replicating touch-scapes and pressure would obviously be an exciting advancement for video games and other entertainment media that hinges entirely on experiences. Virtual reality is already making its way into the video game market, and incorporating haptic technology could replicate the sensation of rain on your face, the weight of a digital weapon, the earth trembling beneath you. It could also help build comprehensive experiences for people unable to travel to distant locations.
Haptic technology also has the potential to create opportunities for employees with disabilities—ranging from prosthetic limbs to vision impairment—to work in jobs that could have been previously inaccessible, and to make the office a generally more welcoming place. Take, for example, the haptic chair that could communicate to a blind person when the person opposite them is smiling, or frowning, and could instantly translate non-Braille text into haptic sensations that replicate Braille bumps. Someday, data and statistics could be translated into levels of pressure (more pressure as a certain percentage gets higher, for example) to allow disabled people to process and analyze data.
Researchers and engineers in everything from STEM to health care, gaming, and corporate software are investing in the incorporation of robust haptic technology. Touch—the sense that once seemed impossible to replicate—is rapidly becoming the doorway to eliminating distance and ambiguity for specialized surgeons, retailers, gamers, and workers, and in the not-so-distant future, it could be the key to summoning holographic keyboards with a gesture and true immersion in a virtual or augmented reality.