How Haptic Technology Works

The Samsung Anycall Haptic. See more cell phone pictures.
Courtesy Samsung

If you thought the Apple iPhone was amazing, then feast your eyes -- and fingers -- on this phone from Samsung. Dubbed the Anycall Haptic, the phone features a large touch-screen display just like the iPhone. But it does Apple's revolutionary gadget one better, at least for now: It enables users to feel clicks, vibrations and other tactile input. In all, it provides the user with 22 kinds of touch sensations.

Those sensations explain the use of the term haptic in the name. Haptic is from the Greek "haptesthai," meaning to touch. As an adjective, it means relating to or based on the sense of touch. As a noun, usually used in a plural form (haptics), it means the science and physiology of the sense of touch. Scientists have studied haptics for decades, and they know quite a bit about the biology of touch. They know, for example, what kind of receptors are in the skin and how nerves shuttle information back and forth between the central nervous system and the point of contact.


­Unfortunately, computer scientists have had great difficulty transferring this basic understanding of touch into their virtual reality systems. Visual and auditory cues are easy to replicate in computer-generated models, but tactile cues are more prob­lematic. It is almost impossible to enable a user to feel something happening in the computer's mind thro­ugh a typical interface. Sure, keyboards allow users to type in words, and joysticks and steering wheels can vibrate. But how can a user touch what's inside the virtual world? How, for example, can a video game player feel the hard, cold steel of his or her character's weapon? How can an astronaut, training in a computer simulator, feel the weight and rough texture of a virtual moon rock?

­Since the 1980s, computer scientists have been trying to answer these questions. Their field is a specialized subset of haptics known as computer haptics. Over the next few pages, we'll cover how haptic technology works by:

  • relating computer haptics to related fields of haptics research
  • characterizing the types of h­aptic feedback required for realistic virtual touching
  • examining haptics systems either in development or currently available on the market
  • exploring current and potential applications

Of course, the prom­ising future of haptics owes much to its history. In the next section, we'll examine this history to understand that computer haptics falls on a continuum of haptics research.


The Haptics Continuum

HIRO, a haptic interface robot, helps a user feel a dinosaur during the Prototype Robot Exhibition at the 2005 World Exposition in Japan.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

As a field of study, haptics has closely paralleled the rise and evolution of automation. Before the industrial revolution, scientists focused on how living things experienced touch. Biologists learned that even simple organisms, such as jellyfish and worms, possessed sophisticated touch responses. In the early part of the 20th century, psychologists and medical researchers actively studied how humans experience touch. Appropriately so, this branch of science became known as human haptics, and it revealed that the human hand, the primary structure associated with the sense of touch, was extraordinarily complex.

With 27 bones and 40 muscles, including muscles located in the forearm, the hand offers tremendous dexterity. Scientists quantify this dexterity using a concept known as degrees of freedom. A degree of freedom is movement afforded by a single joint. Because the human hand contains 22 joints, it allows movement with 22 degrees of freedom. The skin covering the hand is also rich with receptors and nerves, components of the nervous system that communicate touch sensations to the brain and spinal cord.


Then came the development of machines and robots. These mechanical devices also had to touch and feel their environment, so researchers began to study how this sensation could be transferred to machines. The era of machine haptics had begun. The earliest machines that allowed haptic interaction with remote objects were simple lever-and-cable-actuated tongs placed at the end of a pole. By moving, orienting and squeezing a pistol grip, a worker could remotely control tongs, which could be used to grab, move and manipulate an object.

In the 1940s, these relatively crude remote manipulation systems were improved to serve the nuclear and hazardous material industries. Through a machine interface, workers could manipulate toxic and dangerous substances without risking exposure. Eventually, scientists developed designs that replaced mechanical connections with motors and electronic signals. This made it possible to communicate even subtle hand actions to a remote manipulator more efficiently than ever before.

The next big advance arrived in the form of the electronic computer. At first, computers were used to control machines in a real environment (think of the computer that controls a factory robot in an auto assembly plant). But by the 1980s, computers could generate virtual environments -- 3-D worlds into which users could be cast. In these early virtual environments, users could receive stimuli through sight and sound only. Haptic interaction with simulated objects would remain limited for many years.

Then, in 1993, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) constructed a device that delivered haptic stimulation, finally making it possible to touch and feel a computer-generated object. The scientists working on the project began to describe their area of research as computer haptics to differentiate it from machine and human haptics. Today, computer haptics is defined as the systems required -- both hardware and software -- to render the touch and feel of virtual objects. It is a rapidly growing field that is yielding a number of promising haptic technologies.

Before we look at some of these technologies in greater detail, let's look at the types of touch sensations a haptic system must provide to be successful.


Types of Haptic Feedback

Though many video gamers may not know haptic technology by name, they probably know what Force Feedback is -- it's been marketed by name on game controllers for years.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

When we use our hands to explore the world around us, we receive two types of feedback -- kinesthetic and tactile. To understand the difference between the two, consider a hand that reaches for, picks up and explores a baseball. As the hand reaches for the ball and adjusts its shape to grasp, a unique set of data points describing joint angle, muscle length and tension is generated. This information is collected by a specialized group of receptors embedded in muscles, tendons and joints.

Known as proprioceptors, these receptors carry signals to the brain, where they are processed by the somatosensory region of the cerebral cortex. The muscle spindle is one type of proprioceptor that provides information about changes in muscle length. The Golgi tendon organ is another type of proprioceptor that provides information about changes in muscle tension. The brain processes this kinesthetic information to provide a sense of the baseball's gross size and shape, as well as its position relative to the hand, arm and body.


When the fingers touch the ball, contact is made between the finger pads and the ball surface. Each finger pad is a complex sensory structure containing receptors both in the skin and in the underlying tissue. There are many types of these receptors, one for each type of stimulus: light touch, heavy touch, pressure, vibration and pain. The data coming collectively from these receptors helps the brain understand subtle tactile details about the ball. As the fingers explore, they sense the smoother texture of the leather, the raised coarseness of the laces and the hardness of the ball as force is applied. Even the thermal properties of the ball are sensed through tactile receptors.

Force feedback is a term often used to describe tactile and/or kinesthetic feedback. As our baseball example illustrates, force feedback is vastly complex. Yet, if a person is to feel a virtual object with any fidelity, force feedback is exactly the kind of information the person must receive. Computer scientists began working on devices -- haptic interface devices -- that would allow users to feel virtual objects via force feedback. Early attempts were not successful. But as we'll see in the next section, a new generation of haptic interface devices is delivering an unsurpassed level of performance, fidelity and ease of use.


Haptic Systems

The Omni®, the entry-level device in the PHANTOM line from SensAble Technologies­
Courtesy SensAble Technologies

There are several approaches to creating haptic systems. Although they may look drastically different, they all have two important things in common -- software to determine the forces that result when a user's virtual identity interacts with an object and a device through which those forces can be applied to the user. The actual process used by the software to perform its calculations is called haptic rendering. A common rendering method uses polyhedral models to represent objects in the virtual world. These 3-D models can accurately portray a variety of shapes and can calculate touch data by evaluating how force lines interact with the various faces of the object. Such 3-D objects can be made to feel solid and can have surface texture.

The job of conveying haptic images to the user falls to the interface device. In many respects, the interface device is analogous to a mouse, except a mouse is a passive device that cannot communicate any synthesized haptic data to the user. Let's look at a few specific haptic systems to understand how these devices work.


  • The PHANTOM® interface from SensAble Technologies was one of the first haptic systems to be sold commercially. Its success lies in its simplicity. Instead of trying to display information from many different points, this haptic device simulates touching at a single point of contact. It achieves this through a stylus which is connected to a lamp-like arm. Three small motors give force feedback to the user by exerting pressure on the stylus. So, a user can feel the elasticity of a virtual balloon or the solidity of a brick wall. He or she can also feel texture, temperature and weight. The stylus can be customized so that it closely resembles just about any object. For example, it can be fitted with a syringe attachment to simulate what it feels like to pierce skin and muscle when giving a shot.
  • The CyberGrasp system, another commercially available haptic interface from Immersion Corporation, takes a different approach. This device fits over the user's entire hand like an exoskeleton and adds resistive force feedback to each finger. Five actuators produce the forces, which are transmitted along tendons that connect the fingertips to the exoskeleton. With the CyberGrasp system, users are able to feel the size and shape of virtual objects that only exist in a computer-generated world. To make sure a user's fingers don't penetrate or crush a virtual solid object, the actuators can be individually programmed to match the object's physical properties.
  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are experimenting with a haptic interface that does not rely on actuated linkage or cable devices. Instead, their interface uses a powerful electromagnet to levitate a handle that looks a bit like a joystick. The user manipulates the levitated tool handle to interact with computed environments. As she moves and rotates the handle, she can feel the motion, shape, resistance and surface texture of simulated objects. This is one of the big advantages of a levitation-based technology: It reduces friction and other interference so the user experiences less distraction and remains immersed in the virtual environment. It also allows constrained motion in six degrees of freedom (compared to the entry-level Phantom interface, which only allows for three active degrees of freedom). The one disadvantage of the magnetic levitation haptic interface is its footprint. An entire cabinet is required to house the maglev device, power supplies, amplifiers and control processors. The user handle protrudes from a bowl embedded in the cabinet top.

As you can imagine, systems like we've described here can be quite expensive. That means the applications of the technology are still limited to certain industries and specialized types of training. On the next page, we'll explore some of the applications of haptic technology.


Applications of Haptic Technology

It's not difficult to think of ways to apply haptics. Video game makers have been early adopters of passive haptics, which takes advantage of vibrating joysticks, controllers and steering wheels to reinforce on-screen activity. But future video games will enable players to feel and manipulate virtual solids, fluids, tools and avatars. The Novint Falcon haptics controller is already making this promise a reality. The 3-D force feedback controller allows you to tell the difference between a pistol report and a shotgun blast, or to feel the resistance of a longbow's string as you pull back an arrow.

Graphical user interfaces, like those that define Windows and Mac operating environments, will also benefit greatly from haptic interactions. Imagine being able to feel graphic buttons and receive force feedback as you depress a button. Some touchscreen manufacturers are already experimenting with this technology. Nokia phone designers have perfected a tactile touchscreen that makes on-screen buttons behave as if they were real buttons. When a user presses the button, he or she feels movement in and movement out. He also hears an audible click. Nokia engineers accomplished this by placing two small piezoelectric sensor pads under the screen and designing the screen so it could move slightly when pressed. Everything -- movement and sound -- is synchronized perfectly to simulate real button manipulation.


Although several companies are joining Novint and Nokia in the push to incorporate haptic interfaces into mainstream products, cost is still an obstacle. The most sophisticated touch technology is found in industrial, military and medical applications. Training with haptics is becoming more and more common. For example, medical students can now perfect delicate surgical techniques on the computer, feeling what it's like to suture blood vessels in an anastomosis or inject BOTOX into the muscle tissue of a virtual face. Aircraft mechanics can work with complex parts and service procedures, touching everything that they see on the computer screen. And soldiers can prepare for battle in a variety of ways, from learning how to defuse a ­bomb to operating a helicopter, tank or fighter jet in virtual combat scenarios.

Haptic technology is also widely used in teleoperation, or telerobotics. In a telerobotic system, a human operator controls the movements of a robot that is located some distance away. Some teleoperated robots are limited to very simple tasks, such as aiming a camera and sending back visual images. In a more sophisticated form of teleoperation known as telepresence, the human operator has a sense of being located in the robot's environment. Haptics now makes it possible to include touch cues in addition to audio and visual cues in telepresence models. It won't be long before astronomers and planet scientists actually hold and manipulate a Martian rock through an advanced haptics-enabled telerobot -- a high-touch version of the Mars Exploration Rover.

­On the next page, we'll take a look at how haptic technology has gained in its importance and is becoming essential in some applications.


The Importance of Haptic Technology

In video games, the addition of haptic capabilities is nice to have. It increases the reality of the game and, as a result, the user's satisfaction. But in training and other applications, haptic interfaces are vital. That's because the sense of touch conveys rich and detailed information about an object. When it's combined with other senses, especially sight, touch dramatically increases the amount of information that is sent to the brain for processing. The increase in information reduces user error, as well as the time it takes to complete a task. It also reduces the energy consumption and the magnitudes of contact forces used in a teleoperation situation.

Clearly, Samsung is hoping to capitalize on some of these benefits with the introduction of the Anycall Haptic phone. Nokia will push the envelope even farther when it introduces phones with tactile touchscreens. Yes, such phones will be cool to look at. And, yes, they will be cool to touch. But they will also be easier to use, with the touch-based features leading to fewer input errors and an overall more satisfying experience.


­If you'd like to learn more about haptics and related technologies, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Immersion Corporation. "The Value of Haptics: Recent findings on the value of haptic feedback."
  • Immersion Corporation Web Site
  • The Microdynamics System Laboratory
  • Pescovitz, David. "Getting Real in Cyberspace." Scientific American Presents: Your New Senses, 1999.
  • Ross, Rachel, "Getting in Touch: Virtual Maps for the Blind." Scientific American News: April 4, 2007.
  • Ruvinsky, Jessica. "Haptic technology simulates the sense of touch -- via computer." Stanford Report: April 2, 2003.
  • Salisbury, J. Kenneth, and Srinivasan, Mandayam A. "Phantom-Based Haptic Interaction with Virtual Objects." IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications: September/October 1997.
  • Salisbury, Kenneth. "Haptics: The Technology of Touch." HPCwire. Nov. 10, 1995.
  • SensAble Technologies Web Site
  • Srinivasan, Mandayam A."What is Haptics?" Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Strauss, Evelyn. "Feeling the Future." Scientific American Presents: Your New Senses, 1999. Scientific American Digital.
  • Wilson, Daniel H. "How Haptics Will Change the Way We Interact with Machines." Popular Mechanics. April 2008.