A new haptic touch system that can dynamically change the physical feel of a control surface beneath the fingertip has been developed, potentially revolutionizing touchscreens and portable devices. Swiss EPFL researchers discovered that a piezoelectric surface that flexes at the micron level can create a textured panel a user's finger can perceive.
The piezoelectric material itself vibrates when a voltage is applied, and while that movement is imperceivable to human touch - being in the region of a one-hundredth of the width of a human hair - the resulting tiny air gaps are felt as a raised surface. By adjusting the voltage, the researchers at the Integrated Actuators Laboratory found they could create dynamically changing physical textures that related to the interface users were navigating through.
Such a system could present a stepped scroll control for more accurate navigation through menus, a delineated onscreen keyboard for easier typing, virtual gaming controls that can be used without necessarily looking at the screen, or any manner of gadgets intended for those with vision issues. "The term ‘touch screen’ that’s used to describe current technology is really a misnomer," project member Christophe Winter argues, "because they only provide visual and auditory feedback."
There's no telling when the EPFL system could show up in production devices at this stage, unfortunately.