Sitting in a coffee shop in Mountain View, Calif., Mike Levin unlocks a large, hardened carrying case that looks like a prop from a Mission: Impossible movie. He opens it and reveals...not the antidote to a supervirus, but a pile of computer screens, mouse pads, and other parts. He fishes out a keyboard. It's paper-thin and almost completely flat. Then he connects the keyboard to a laptop, and the amazement begins. Instead of using actual keys, this keyboard has stationary, printed-on tiles that only feel as if they go up and down. "It's that feel of a switch going on and off that most people are looking for," he says.
Engineers have a word for what Levin is describing: haptics, or technology that adds tactile sensations to gadgetry. It's been around a while. Think of vibrate mode on a cell phone, or videogame controllers rumbling when a linebacker blindsides a quarterback. Levin is the chief sales and marketing officer of Pacinian of Spokane, Wash., one of many haptics startups to appear in recent years. In the near future, these companies plan to give smartphones and tablets new powers. Imagine videogame guns that deliver a kick to your hand when fired, just like the real thing; virtual guitars with strings that feel real; buttons and knobs that actually grow out of touchscreens.
Pacinian's approach uses a coating that can be put on just about any surface to give it electrostatic properties. In the case of, say, a tablet, the touchscreen gets two coats with a layer of air in between. When you press the image of a button, Pacinian's technology triggers an electrical charge that essentially pulls the screen away from your finger at lightning speed. "It's like controlled static cling," Levin says. A version of the keyboard will go on sale in 2012, and the company's technology will be licensed to other hardware manufacturers. Levin says that Pacinian's haptics technology will begin showing up on casino games next year, as well, and that auto manufacturers should be putting it into dashboards and in-car displays by 2013.
A Helsinki-based startup named Senseg is developing technology that will let users feel textures on the screen. During a demonstration, the textures were discernible but faint. Senseg executives say that future versions will let people shopping online actually sense the ridges of corduroy pants or the soft feel of a flannel shirt.
This new generation of haptic technology has captured the imagination of software developers, too. Some 200 million Nokia (NOK), Samsung (005930:KS), and LG (066570:KS) phones already come preloaded with haptics software made by Immersion (IMMR). The technology controls handsets' (until now) primitive motors and tells them to vibrate, for example, when something explodes during a smartphone game. "In something like the Angry Birds game, you want to feel the slingshot pull back and feel the bird crash into pigs," says Dennis Sheehan, the vice-president for marketing at Immersion. It's a subtle but compelling enhancement. He says such games will be feasible as new haptics hardware arrives over the next year or two.
The most mind-blowing brand of haptics may come from a Silicon Valley startup called Tactus Technology. In a pair of patent applications, the company's executives describe a touchscreen display capable of growing a keyboard out of its surface. Seriously. You go to type an e-mail, and a keyboard rises up slightly out of the display, allowing your fingers to feel the edges of the letters, numbers, and symbols. When you're done, the keyboard recedes back into the surface. To play a game, controller knobs and buttons emerge.
Tactus declined requests to discuss its work. However, applications for patents and government grants provide clues about the company's technology and ambitions. In basic terms, Tactus would sandwich liquid or gas between two surfaces and use a mechanism to expand and contract the surfaces, creating buttons, knobs, and other shapes. In a confidential part of a document seen by Bloomberg Businessweek, Tactus says, "The buttons can rapidly be enabled on demand by the user or by the device software, and even the button size and configuration can be changed. While this functionality may sound like magic, we have demonstrated that the technology works." The same document says that Apple (AAPL), Samsung, and Nokia have held discussions with Tactus. (The companies all declined to discuss any relationship with Tactus or interest in the technology.)
Past haptics technology has been underwhelming. Consumer electronics makers, like consumers themselves, have had little reason to get terribly excited about devices that offered it. The new wave of haptics might change that. The technology certainly promises to make typing on virtual keyboards easier. More than that, it promises to fill a basic human desire to feel things, says Andrew Hsu, a strategist at Synaptics, which makes touchscreen technology. "Our devices are with us all the time now and so much more personal," he says. "You want to give them more awareness and create a much more immersive experience."
The bottom line: Startups specializing in technology that adds tactile sensations to gadgets are racing to develop killer apps for tablets and smartphones.