The problem with touchscreens, of course, is just that: you’re touching a screen. However much effort the designers of the phone’s operating system and apps put into the user experience, it’s ultimately still behind glass. But a future generation of the gadgets may feature touchscreens that actually feel like something more.
Last month, Nokia unveiled a prototype phone that can create the illusion of texture on its screen using electro-vibration. A simple effect that scientists have known about since the 1950s, electro-vibration tricks your fingertips into sensing texture when you touch a layer of insulation encasing a metal surface that’s conducting an alternating electrical current. With a low-frequency current, the surface feels rough; the higher the frequency, the smoother the surface feels.
The challenge will come in refining the technology for a user interface. Nokia’s prototype offers very limited functionality. Its screen is able to simulate only one texture at a time, and then only when a user’s fingertip is moving across the touchscreen’s surface. Also, users have reported varying degrees of responsiveness, presumably because of the varying degrees of thickness of people’s skin.
But Nokia is optimistic that they’ll find a way to overcome those hurdles. Along with two other groups, they have filed patents on applications of the technology. One, an American-led academic research group, has used electro-vibration to make touchscreens feel bumpy, rough, and sticky. Another Finnish company, Senseg, has deals in place to incorporate the technology into products for three companies, including Toshiba, which could be on the market as soon as next year.