Greg Reeder
Greg Reeder 13 July 2015

Touch Me. Tap Me. Shake Me.

Why we want -- and need -- to know about touch interfaces.

In the future-predicting satirical comedy Idocracy, our descendants are immersed in a world run by brands, reality TV, and an overwhelming glut of limited intelligence.

Despite their stunted IQ, though, there is one word that tomorrow’s society is familiar with: “electrolytes.” To our future grandchildren, an electrolyte is magic – and presumed to be absolutely necessary, even if they have no clue why.


A similar, current day word-phenomenon seems to be taking hold. Oh, it may be small now, but it’s growing. The word is “haptics” and it’s what hands crave.

Unless you are interested in the Greek origins of words or are a mechanical engineer, haptics for the rest of us is simply using a system based on the sense of touch – for many devices this is called a touch user interface. And, while finger-swiping our iPhone screen like we’re a flamboyant orchestra conductor to delete an annoying email may seem like common sense today, we are just getting to first base when it comes to touching our interfaces.

Q: Why Should I Care About Pinching, Zooming, Swiping Or Vibrating?

A: Mobility


Toothbrushes or a seeming lack of them in the world helps to illustrate the importance of mobile. Research shows that there are roughly a billion more mobile phones than there are toothbrushes in use across the globe each day. While your initial reaction might be fear of a billion bouts of bad breath, the larger point to consider is that more than 5 billion people are using a mobile device, each day, everywhere around the world. As a global society, we are constantly carrying around touch interfaces, relying on them to communicate, interact, learn, play and work.

And the growth of touch-enabled devices isn’t slowing anytime soon. In a nod toward the impact of mobility, the world’s go to search engine, Google, recently altered its search algorithm to favor mobile-friendly websites. Mobile Internet use is growing by leaps and bounds – surpassing desktops as the most used digital platform.

Also, contemplate all those “things” we traditionally did that were NOT mobile. Three immediate examples come to mind: banking, reading and movies. Today, however, we demand mobility for all these tasks. Need to deposit a check? Just swipe the phone, click a button, snap a photo, and press to send that gift from your parents into the financial ether. In need of some touching while reading? Amazon’s Kindle Store has more than 3.4 million clickable titles. On a trip and want to catch up on Game of Thrones? Grab your ipad, login to HBO Now, and watch the mayhem while cruising on your train-commute, airplane travel, or long ride home (reminder: do not watch sword play while driving.)

Even those things we used to do without an interface are now so much more “haptic.” Mobile devices help make Olympic athletes faster. Some ski goggles now have a heads up display you can control with eye movement. Even the new Apple Watch will give you a polite touch on your wrist to let you know your BFF just sent you a text, or let someone else remotely “tap” you or even send you their heartbeat. GMAB!

If you aren’t thinking about how to integrate or connect your content, products, communications or processes with touch or mobile, you may be way behind the times. Wake up and swipe the coffee already!

Q: Aside From Mobile, Aren’t Touch Feedback And Haptics Just Gimmicks?

A: Innovation Can Take Time To Spread.


The first car was patented in 1886. However, the first functional brakes didn’t get invented until 1901. Just think how bad texting and driving would have been in those early no-brake years.

Point being, with innovation, there is a blind spot for many people between tech introduction, advancements and acceptance. Once an innovation catches hold, though, it eventually becomes common sense. For example, the modern zipper had been around just a little more than 75 years when it finally helped people feel totally groovy with their zippered parachute pants in the 80s.

Haptics are already all around us. BMW connected drive will gently vibrate your steering wheel if you depart your lane while driving. PlayStation controllers give you a shake when you crash in a game or let you cause an earthquake during playtime (quite a skill, indeed). Airline flight simulators combine resistance and vibrations to give our pilots-in-training realistic flight sensations. Google maps will vibrate your iPhone as you approach a turning point to alert you of the need for action. And surgical robots provide force feedback to orthopedic surgeons to more effectively operate on knees and hip joints.

The next time you think touch interfaces and sensors are a gimmick, check your FitBit. Those steps, distance and floors climbed on your fitness device are a related form of haptics at work – even if you tried swinging your arms while watching TV from the couch to score some active minutes.

Q: What’s On The Horizon For Touching And Sensory Feedback?

A: This Is Where It Gets Even Crazier.


Our world is getting rocked with innovation – perhaps even more impressive than those parachute pants we talked about earlier, for example:

  • Surgeons will be able to “feel” and operate on patients remotely – giving more people access to skilled medical care in remote areas or from experts across the world.   Doctors might also interact with a 3D MRI or CT scan, by reaching into the image; feeling for tumors, blockages, or blood clots.
  • Sensors in a wearable device like the Apple Watch might sense when your blood sugar is too low, and nudge you with a gentle reminder to eat. Or the Watch could compile weather data and tap your wrist before you leave home for work, suggesting you bring an umbrella.
  • There are game controllers being developed that simulate weight and inertia so, if a player lifts a sword in a battle game, swings it and strikes a character on the screen, the player will feel the weight of the sword, the motion of the swing and the impact.
  • Other systems will project texture on smooth objects. With that technology, it might be possible to feel the material of a sweater before you buy it online.
  • Nuclear engineers can soon remotely handle radioactive substances, allowing for feedback from robotic control arms to ensure safety and dexterity when handling deadly materials.
  • You may eventually be able to allow vehicle data systems to access your personal data -- to know about a heart condition, for example. Sensors in the car could then monitor your health for warning signs of a heart attack while you are driving; then alert you to pull over while the vehicle sends your doctor an update.
  • Prosthetic hands can be given the sense of touch, to allow their wearers to pick up delicate objects or, once again, feel the grasp of their child’s hand.
  • Prematurely born infants, isolated during their hospital care, can be accompanied by a haptic system to simulate their mother’s heartbeat, to comfort the baby as if she was lying next to her mom.comfort the baby

From games, to transportation, health care, energy, commerce and relationships – advancements in touch interface and haptics can drastically improve us and our opportunities.

Data, touch, and sensory feedback have come full circle from being something we thought was nice to have to something we absolutely need.

Maybe haptics and touch interfaces aren’t as sexy as electrolytes yet, but very soon, they will be.

Original Article


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