Haptics is a term used to describe the feeling of feedback and touch when engaging with a material or technological object.
The first tactile feedback systems were used in WWII-era aircraft to warn the pilot that the plane was about to stall. The system originally prevented the control stick from vibrating out of control when the aircraft approached stalling, but researchers found that this natural feedback was useful for pilots in determining what maneuvers were safe, and therefore designed a haptic feedback system that would engage (simulate the vibration feedback) when the aircraft was close to stalling. This allowed the pilot to know when he was about to stall but still be able to control the aircraft. Since WWII, haptic technology has been applied in a variety of engineering fields to create better feedback systems in virtual environments.
The most ubiquitous application of Haptics have been in videogames. In 1976, Sega's Moto-Cross incorporated vibration feedback when the bike crashed or hit the rough on the side of the road. This gave the gamer feedback beyond the standard visual and audio feedback to better control the bike. Since "Moto-Cross" haptic feedback has become near ubiquitous in game controllers. Every action, from being shot to making a sharp turn, is amplified through vibration or force feedback.
Vibration feedback has recently been incorporated into mobile devices with touch screens to better simulate the effect of a physical button. In non-touchscreen devices, when one presses a button, the button responds by pushing inwards, clicking, making a tone, and showing the number pressed on the display. With touchscreen devices the visual and audio feedback work the same, but the embodied action of the actual button depressing is lacking. To compensate for this lack, companies making smartphones have developed haptic feedback systems that cause a micro-vibration when a button is touched, allowing for a higher level of interface with the device.
Haptic interfaces are currently being developed for surgery simulations and tele-presence surgery systems. The former are being applied to train surgeons without having the risks associated with actual surgery, while the latter are being used in remote surgery operations where the surgeon controls a robotic surgery machine from afar. Haptic feedback is crucial in this field, for both of these surgical applications require that the surgeon be able to feel the texture, softness/hardness, and movement of the different parts of the body.
Virtual Reality and Telepresence
Telepresence often relies on haptic technology. Systems for handling materials from afar require the user to be able to feel exactly how much pressure should be exerted or risk crushing or dropping the materials. So far virtual reality systems mainly rely on audio and visual feedback, but haptic feedback is on the horizon. As anyone who has tooled around in a virtual world will tell you, running into a wall isn't quite the same as in real life. By implementing tactile feedback, one will be able to hold virtual objects and feel their weight. Without haptic technology virtual worlds lack mass, a crucial dimension of any immersive environment. In telepresence and virtual reality environments, haptic technology allows users to have a nervous system, a network of tactile feedback mechanisms that go beyond visual and auditory systems.
Haptics and Our Cyborg Future
When discussing the roles computers are going to play in the future, most futurists focus on the exponentially increasing intelligence of computers and AI, but this is only part of the story. Since computers were originally developed as computing devices, the bias of judging computers by their relative levels of computational ability is understandable. But this bias often mitigates the importance of interface revolutions in the widespread cultural acceptance of computers. In terms of computers, user interfaces has gone through three major revolutions. The first computers were only accessible through terminals, which required typing every command on a bulky keyboard. Later, the mouse was implemented to create a more fluid spacial interface. Now, instead of using a bulky mouse (which requires sweeping movements of the arm) we use touchpads and touchscreens, which engage the very tips of our fingers, one of the most sensative parts of our bodies. In our current interface paradigm we caress, brush, and stroke the touchpad.
Right now computers tend to be very hard, very dry, lacking color, and generally alienating. Many futurists think the cyborg revolution will happen when computers become intelligent enough to relate to us, but we relate to many objects that are not as intelligent as us. People relate to objects because they can project qualities that we possess onto the object. We cry when people die in novels, when our blankie is lost, when Wilson floats away in "Cast Away", when our pets die. It doesn't have to do with intelligence, it has to do with our ability to relate with an object, and Haptics lies right at that nexus. How much closer would you be to your computer if it was a giant soft glowing orb of light that you could bring into the shower? Tactile feedback is a quality that all living beings possess--living things resist, push back, and move. Right now there is little to no haptic technology in laptops, despite the recent advances made in tactile interface. By introducing vibration, force, and temperature feedback, computers would gain many of the qualities that we associate with living beings and force us to ask what the real differences between living and non-living things are.