The internet you can touch

The idea of feeling through your phone or TV screen sounds like some wacky sci-fi stuff, but some brilliant minds are working on just that.

Michael Peshkin, a Northwestern University professor of mechanical engineering and co-founder of defunct surface haptics company Tanvas, told Axios that his team has created “a touchscreen that touches you back.”

That sounds scary

Sure, but you’re actually already using surface haptics. They’re the tactile sensations you get from digital displays, such as when your phone vibrates when you tap a button or type a message.

More advanced surface haptics could create a sense of friction, or mimic a fabric or other object.

Fun example: Before Tanvas ran out of funding last year, it made a tablet that let users feel textures akin to corduroy or sandpaper. Gillette used it in an advertising campaign where people could compare a stubbly face to one freshly shorn.

The future

While it’s currently a costly process to put this intense level of feedback into our modern devices, Peshkin’s lab and other researchers are still at it — and there are some pretty cool applications for this tech as it develops.

  • Haptics in vehicles’ touchscreen displays could help drivers keep their eyes on the road when adjusting their seats or changing music.
  • Shoppers could feel a fabric’s texture before purchasing a piece of clothing.
  • VR and AR applications could use haptics to further immerse users in virtual environments.
  • You could remotely “touch” someone in real time across the internet, as described in a TEDx Talk from Dr. Zhanwei Hou, whose parents could not initially meet his baby due to the pandemic.
  • Hou also describes how a “tactile internet” could be applied in remote or dangerous jobs using a robotic hand and haptic feedback.

So, maybe one day, you really will be able to slap someone through the internet — though we wouldn’t recommend it.

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