FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS technology companies have been working to improve tablet and smartphone displays. So far, most of their efforts have focused on improving screen resolution and pixel density, but at this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) Japanese computer giant Fujitsu moved beyond this, demonstrating a touchscreen technology designed to emulate the textures of objects and materials.
How it works
Fujitsu demonstrated the haptic feedback screen technology on a test tablet at its stand at MWC in Barcelona last month. The screen works using sensors under the display, which detect when a finger is touching the screen and emit low-powered, regulated, ultrasonic vibrations. The vibrations are designed to mimic the feedback sent to our fingertips' mechanoreceptors - sensory receptors in the skin that respond to mechanical pressure or distortion - when they touch specific types of textures.
The demo unit let us try the haptic display in a variety of scenarios. These included a digital dial lock on a vault, a set of strings on a musical instrument, a crocodile's back and a sand box.
Testing the dial lock demo, we noticed one issue with the haptic display - it only works if you interact with it using one finger. Trying to physically grab the digital lock with two fingers like you would in real life, the display only reacted to our index finger. This could be a bit of an issue as most tablet users are already used to 10-point touch sensitivity.
Once we put this issue aside, we found the display's feedback quite impressive. Turning the on-screen dial lock we felt realistic resistance that simulated that of a real one. The display also responded to the force of our movements with the lock turning more easily when we applied more force.
We were also impressed with the string demo, and the screen reacted and responded differently to each input we attempted. For example, forcefully plucking one of the digital strings, the screen's feedback was sharper and more forceful than when we smoothly stroked our finger over it.
The same could be said for the crocodile demo, where we found the haptic technology was able to realistically emulate smooth and bumpy surfaces. While our healthy fear of crocodiles means we can't attest to the texture's accuracy, we did notice a difference in feedback, with smooth textures having a slightly more slippery feel than the protruding rough parts of the crocodile's back on the screen.
The sand box demo proved that the display is able to deal with multi-layer textures. This demo required us to brush sand off a mosaic image, and we found the haptic display offered convincing feedback on both layers, changing the feel of the underlying mosaic's image after we'd rubbed the sand off.
But we noticed one flaw with the technology. Picking up the tablet to test the sand box demo, we found that the display stopped offering feedback to our commands. After quickly snatching the tablet back, the spokeswoman explained that the haptic display technology presently only works if the tablet is laid flat, so the technology as it stands would be of little use for tablet users on the move.
When to expect it
Fujitsu didn't reveal when we can expect to see its haptic display technology implemented in a commercial product, but the spokeswoman told us this most likely will be sometime in 2015.
We were generally quite impressed with the haptic display. After going through all of the available demos we found that Fujitsu's demo display can emulate a variety of textures. But it does have a couple of issues we'd like to see ironed out before it reaches products. These include the fact that it only works if you interact with it using one finger and when the tablet is laid flat. We hope that these issues will be resolved before the first tablet with a haptic display goes on sale. µ