Computing technology is one of the most rapidly changing and evolving sciences on the planet. No matter how hard I try to stay ahead of the curve, it seems as if some new processing or graphic development is always right around the corner, rendering my “latest and greatest” device nearly obsolete. Nonetheless, one of the most crucial aspects of the tablets, smartphones, and laptops that rule our lives has seen almost no change in the last decade – the touchscreen. While the addition of Gorilla Glass and various forms of Augmented and Virtual Reality change the way in which we interact with our screens, they all still feel exactly the same – smooth, textureless glass surfaces. A company called Tanvas wants to change the way we feel about our screens though. Earlier this month at CES 2017, they provided the first demo of their Haptic feedback system, which allows users to actually feel the textures they’re touching on screen.
This innovative new approach to touchscreen technology has been dubbed TanvasTouch. It’s based on a concept called Surface Haptics, which describes the interaction between programmable haptic effects and physical surfaces. The science itself has been in development for more than a decade, thanks to the combined brainpower of Ed Colgate and Michael Peshkin at Northwestern’s Neuroscience and Robotics Lab. To produce the experience of texture on a flat surface, Tanvas uses “real-time control of the electrical forces between your fingertip and the touch surfaces.” To put that a little more simply, TanvasTouch technology adds a layer between your finger and the display. This layer then acts as an electromagnet for skin, which creates the desired textured effect by pulling at the tips of fingers as they drag across the display screen; similar to the vibration you feel when typing or hitting “buttons” on your screen now. The result is a more dynamic sense of feeling than has been previously achieved on any other device – even Apple’s 3D Touch.
Tanvas has already partnered with a company called Bonobos to test the technology with real consumers. The goal is to create an experience in which online shoppers would actually be able to feel the textures of the clothes they’re buying online, without the hassle of a real-live shopping mall, or the dreaded crowds that come with it. A few other touchable demos included things like guitar strings, pebbles under a stream, and even the feel of silk vs. corduroy. Ed Colgate, one of the co-founders of Tanvas, says “Imagine how stark life would be if everything we touched felt exactly the same: smooth, hard and featureless. Yet that is precisely the experience we’ve been forced to accept in the digital world. No more! Our mission is to bring ‘touch’ fully into the touchscreen experience.” And bring it they will – Tanvas is already rolling out the technology, which can potentially be implemented in any device with a touchscreen. In the future, perhaps even flat surfaces like tables or desks could be outfitted with this touchable tech.