Researchers develop tiny hydraulic haptics for touchscreen notifications you can physically feel

If you find smartphone notifications annoying enough already thanks to their ability to exploit the full range of distraction options available, be it dropping a banner from above or spraying red pockmark balls over screen icons From startup to staying like sand in the eye, you should prepare for even less subtle demands bubbling into your line of sight in the future if mobile device makers end up commercializing novel research on flat panel haptics.

Think of notifications that create a physical bulge on your smartphone’s screen, causing the update icon to bulge out or even pulsate slightly like the proverbial sore thumb until you press down with your own digit to remove the unsightly crease.

On the less dystopian side, touchscreens with the ability to be dynamically tactile could have accessibility benefits by allowing form and texture to coexist with the utility of flat-panel computing, for example by providing people with disabilities Visual physical cues to help identify keys. on-screen content (along with the software needed to power such a use case in existing apps and interfaces, of course).

The ever-inventive Future Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon University is behind research into what they describe as “integrated electroosmotic pumps for scalable shaped displays.” The main breakthrough they claim here is to compress the hydro-based haptics into a panel thin enough that it can be hidden behind an OLED display, like those found on modern smartphones.

Their work is detailed in this research paper (PDF) and shown in the following video:

While bulging notifications may not be the average smartphone user’s idea of ​​the heaven of futuristic mobile computing, the researchers suggest that the prototype technology could enable dynamic interfaces on other types of devices so that buttons and cues appear on the point of need, let’s say power, play. and track progress in a music player, instead of having to adjust lots of physical knobs and dials.

They also follow the idea of ​​flat panel haptic technology that allows the return of the physical aspect of the keyboard to touchscreen smartphones.

Longtime mobile industry observers may recall that BlackBerry maker RIM, a company that dominated the mobile field in the pre-iPhone touchscreen era with its physical keyboard phones designed for email, actually tried something like this in 2008.

The ill-fated BlackBerry Storm, as the ‘turducken’ phone was called, combined a touchscreen with built-in physical haptics (the screen literally clicked as you pressed) in a bit to recreate the feeling of pressing actual keys on a physical touchscreen without a Qwerty. handset.

The problem was, er, the experience basically sucked. Neither fishy nor gross, as the saying goes. So it seems arguable that many mobile device manufacturers are rushing to incorporate electroosmotic pumps into their phones just to take another bite out of the physical keyboard in the age of touchscreen computing.

Though tablets seem like a much more interesting use case. (And, beyond that, the general idea of ​​squeezing more attention-grabbing bells and whistles into roughly the same physical space is sure to have takers.)

On top of that, RIM’s attempt to implement a physical-looking touchscreen keyboard some fifteen years ago clearly lacked the tactile granularity necessary for the technology to work usefully in a typing context, as the company apparently simply placed a single button under the back plate of the screen. .

While the researchers note that their electroosmotic pumps can be as small as 2mm in diameter (and as large as 10mm), and each pump can be controlled individually (similar to pixels) and supports fast update rates. This suggests that a flexible touch screen combined with a number of its miniaturized hydraulics could be far more dynamic and versatile (and therefore potentially useful) than was possible with the types of mechanical mechanisms available to match in the past. .

So there’s still a chance that RIM’s BlackBerry Storm was simply ahead of its time.

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