Haptic Tech: The Next Communications Breakthrough?

The idea of tapping into the brain via the senses to convey more immersive experiences isn’t new. Aldous Huxley introduced “the feelies” in his 1932 classic Brave New World, often overlooked versus Orwell’s darker version of the future in 1984.

With the superheated hype around 3D movies and now televisions, it’s worth spending a moment on the other augmentation technologies that are starting to emerge over the horizon. I believe that haptic technology in particular – involving the sense of touch – is poised to enter the mainstream.

As frequently happens, push-the-envelope domains of consumer technology – gaming and porn, for example – are some of the first to produce demonstration applications of the leading edge technologies.

For example, there was a great recent write-up in IEEE Spectrum about a new haptic vest, designed to produce simulated bullet and knife impacts for a first-person action game. In a sunnier vein, CNET covered the demonstration of a haptic system integrated with Second Life avatars to produce a more physical interaction between people using the virtual world, like a long distance hug.

To highlight the increasing international work in this area, the First Augmented Human International Conference was held just two weeks ago in early April at a resort in the French Alps. Over two dozen papers were presented, ranging from gesture innovations to emotion interpretation.

The reason these events matters is because touch matters. As recently as six weeks ago, the New York Times wrote a fascinating research summary on a basketful of work underway describing compelling applications of touch, from increased classroom volunteerism to improved health. Touch, as one research leader explains in the article “…is the first language we learn…[it’s] our richest means of emotional expression throughout life.”

When you begin to think about the ability to receive touch-based communications, as well as the continuing advances in the ability to send touch-based communications through gesture-control innovations from companies like Canesta, you start to get the feeling (figuratively and literally) that we are at the dawn of a whole new richer form of communications.

How will this begin to creep its way into the hurly-burly business world? It’s early to say. But, one thing we do know is that most of communications is conveyed in systems outside of the plain, written word. The fullest form of communications comes from how a person looks when they speak, the way the say their words, how they move, etc.

The other thing we seem to have learned is that the major waves of internet applications seem to be triggered by ground-breaking innovations in communications.

On this point, I thought Tim Bray, Director of Web Technologies at Sun, said it best last year (you can watch or read his full interview) when he said “One thing though: every killer app on the Internet, every success story on the Internet entirely without exception has been about communication. The killer app of the Internet is people. …Email, the web, lightweight publishing, chat, IM, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, Flick, Youtube, it’s all about finding new ways of sharing with other people.”