You’ve probably seen the video: A child who looks to be about a year old picks up a magazine and touches a picture. It seems like the most natural thing in the world to him: Why wouldn’t this piece of paper respond to his touch?
It turns out this kid is right and we’re all wrong. All kinds of objects from clothes to car dashboards to websites and apps are becoming touch-sensitive. And they’re touching back as well. This new communication vehicle is a challenge and opportunity for designers.
The Emergence of Touch
When computers first came along, it was a visual medium and it still is, primarily. It’s only in the last 15 years or so that audio — mostly in the form of music — has been part of the experience as well. Touch is the newest of our five senses to be engaged.
So far, haptic feedback has been used mostly for gaming. However, that lineage goes back a ways, to Sega’s Moto-Cross game in Japan in the 1970s. When players crashed their bikes, the handlebars would vibrate, mimicking the feeling of a crash. To achieve that effect, designers use an electromagnetic motor to elicit a sensation.
More recently, game designers have taken advantage of Apple’s Haptic Engine for the iPhone 7. Snowman’s Alto’s Adventure, for instance, offers low-level vibrations when collecting a wayward llama or slipping on an ice boost. All of this helps further the enjoyment of the game.
Apple has also employed haptic tech in its Apple Watch, which emits pulse notifications which aren’t much different from what any standard phone will do in “vibrate” mode. The difference is in how people use the technology. Since a watch face is out of the consumer’s sight, touch is a primary means of communication.
It’s important to note that this taptic communication is not merely the same technology that makes the phone vibrate. Rather than hitting a certain RPM, the Taptic Engine reaches the right frequency and can shift frequencies to make it seem like the vibration is coming from different areas. This greatly expands the palette of what kind of sensations are available.
This means of sensory communication is a new vista for web designers. For instance, a consumer might object to a sound notification in some cases, but be open to a haptic pulse on their Apple Watch or phone in others. Rather than the standard vibration of a cell phone, though, the pulses can be of different lengths or sensations so the user can differentiate between them.
Websites and apps that are optimized for touch, meanwhile, can add in all kinds of new tactile sensations, “including holes, bumps and bas-relief type textures,” according to a recent report in Wired. The end result is that objects on screen have a weight to them, sometimes literally. A Disney research project included a touchscreen that included files that seemed to feel lighter or heavier than each other.
Looking ahead, the possibilities of touch-sensitive communication seems limitless. Google’s Project Jacquard, for instance, would turn clothes into a smart medium for touch. For instance, a consumer could change a song or start up GPS just by touching her jeans. A Levi’s jacket could guide you around city streets by touch and even allow you to receive calls.
Future cars will use touch to warn drivers about impending dangers. If the driver is in danger of a collision, the steering wheel might vibrate. The car might also be able to tap the driver on the shoulder to avoid opening the door and hitting a cyclist.
The design implications for such technologies is huge. We are used to imagining websites and apps as a visual medium, but now we must also consider touch, which will likely be a bigger medium than sound. But what about the other senses? It turns out that people are already thinking about smell-based computing. For the moment, taste appears safe. Computers and smartphones are great, but no one wants to eat them.