Haptics Get in Touch with the Virtual World

Computer processing power, as you know, has been growing exponentially for decades. Our means of interacting with computers, however, have changed little since they first appeared, but that’s changing now and the manner in which it’s changing will both drastically improve how computers enhance our lives.

Computers still convey information to users almost exclusively through sight and sound, speakers and screens. We still give information to computers mostly through keyboards, track pads and mouse devices. It has long been predicted that this would change.

Until now, however, interface technology for personal computers has been pretty static. Voice command capabilities have improved somewhat in recent years, but the technology is of limited use. For the handicapped, there are even devices that tap electrical brain signals and track eye movements. Military researchers are moving these extremely expensive technologies forward for combat purposes.

If you play computer games, however, there are other options. There are, for example, controllers like the Wii remote and various joysticks. Why is this important?

It is important because gamers and the gaming industry have pushed personal computing to the limits from the beginning. Important elements of the computer you’re using today were developed for, and financed by, gamers. They range from graphics cards to faster, wider data buses.

It is a mistake to underestimate either the financial or technological impact of gaming. Gaming not only pushes personal computing, it is already bigger and growing faster than the movie business today. The technologies embraced, financed and perfected by the early adopters in the gaming community have a way of making it to the mainstream.

One obvious and underestimated example is 3-D virtual worlds (VWs). Once available only as incredibly expensive training simulations for astronauts and pilots, they reached the public in the form of computer games. Later, they became two-player and then multiple-player and finally massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). Simultaneously, top corporations, hospitals and the military adopted VWs for training, conferencing and collaborations.

There is, however, one big difference between the VWs used by gamers and the multimillion-dollar systems used to train pilots and surgeons: haptics, or computer touch. Haptics adds touch feedback to our means of communicating with the digital world. This is one of the technologies that will fundamentally change computing, because touch is so critical to our everyday lives.

In advanced simulations, users can touch and feel desks, walls, steering wheels, scalpels and catheters, as well as the tissue they affect, using robotic mechanisms to convey sensations that feel like the real world. Already, crude attempts have been made to bring tactile information to gaming. The Wii and Sony PlayStation controller’s primitive vibrations are examples.

All of these haptic applications take place in 3-D virtual worlds. It is critical that you understand that these worlds are coming fast to your PC. They will not only be gaming environments. They will be educational, productivity and social apps. Your computing experience will transform from a series of flat walls to 3-D offices with intuitive storage spaces as well as conferencing rooms for business and recreation.

Patrick Cox
Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 30, 2010