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New Technology Lets You ‘Feel’ Objects on a Tablet

Brian Heater
Tech Columnist
February 27, 2014

BARCELONA — Your shiny new tablet is nice and all, but how great is it really if it can’t let you feel an alligator?

The Japanese tech company Fujitsu has just unveiled a new technology that puts the “touch” back in touchscreen, simulating different surfaces as you run your finger across the display.

The company demonstrated the technology Tuesday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I gave it a shot and was pretty impressed by some of the results. Turning the dial of a safe felt surprisingly convincing, ticking as I adjusted the numbers around the circle.

The DJ demo was pretty cool, too, mimicking the feel of a scratching record as I spun it around a turntable.

Others didn’t quite click: plucking a stringed instrument, for example, or running my hands across the aforementioned alligator’s skin. Still, even when the demo didn’t work exactly as intended, there was a thrill in feeling something that corresponded directly with an image on the tablet’s display.

Over the years, manufacturers have tried a number of different methods in order to bring what’s called tactility to tablet and phone screens. Back at CES 2013, for example, a company called Tactus created small bubbles that expanded from the screen in order to simulate a physical keyboard and could recede back into the screen when not in use. 

Fujitsu’s own solution relies on vibration to recreate different surfaces. The vibrations effectively create friction between your finger and the display, with different levels of friction simulating smooth and rough surfaces. The technology can also mimic slippery surfaces by increasing the amount of air between finger and screen.

So what sort of applications could such a technology have? Retail, for starters. Imagine being able to feel a fabric when buying a shirt online. Gaming could benefit, too. Console controllers already offer a level of haptic feedback to correspond to onscreen activities, but what if you could, say, feel the mud as you hiked through it onscreen?

The tablet is still very much a prototype. I noted a high-frequency noise emitting from the demo, and the Fujitsu rep acknowledged it, saying it was something the company would be addressing.

Also, I have to admit that my hand felt a bit tingly after playing around with all the demos, but that’s just the consequence of all the tiny vibrations, as anyone who has ever used a device with haptic feedback will tell you.

Still, the ability to commercialize the technology may not be that far off. In its press materials, Fujitsu lists a 2015 date for real-world applications.

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