Wishing you and yours a haptic holiday

Mobile phones and gadgets to shake and rumble like gaming console controllers

When playing Halo 3 on your Xbox 360, or other games on other consoles, your handheld game controller shakes and rumbles to coincide with on-screen explosions, crashes, gunshots and grenade detonations.

It's called haptics, or force feedback. In gaming and virtual reality, haptics boost realism by adding a third sense -- touch -- to augment vision and hearing.

A new generation of mobile phones, as well as other gadgets, is introducing haptics. The purpose isn't to add realism, but to provide psychologically satisfying information about precisely when a button is pushed.

With mobile phones, everyone wants minimized phone size but maximized screen size -- two features obviously at odds. New phones like Apple's iPhone solve this quandary by dispensing with buttons altogether and allowing the screen to take over the whole surface of the device. Small device, big screen. Problem solved, right?

Well, it turns out that our brains miss the buttons. While typing away on mobile phones, we feel the buttons press, click and push back. This mechanical feedback tells us with certainty that buttons were, in fact, pressed.

This holiday season is the first ever in which a variety of haptic phones is available for purchase. I'll tell you about the phones at the end of this column. First, let me tell you what's happening now in the world of haptic mobile phones.

Haptics on steroids

The most exciting project in consumer haptics yet demonstrated is a project by Nokia called Haptikos. The project combines haptics with the actual physical depression and raising of parts of the screen.

The Haptikos prototype shows on-screen buttons, but when you press one, it "depresses" under your finger, and you both feel and hear a click.

Nokia is using a special screen with "piezo sensor pads" just below the surface. These pads can effect about 0.1 mm of movement of just a small part of the screen, enough for your brain to register button feedback.

A Nokia S60 device will reportedly be first to ship with Haptikos technology, probably some time next year.

Meanwhile, an Apple patent filing, titled "Keystroke tactility arrangement on a smooth touch surface," describes physical bumps and depressions in the screen itself similar in concept to the Haptikos project.

We can look forward to Haptikos-like devices next year. This year, all the haptic phones available use an immovable screen with haptic vibration feedback only.

Meet the haptic phones

If you live in the US and want a haptic phone this year, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that there are seven haptic phones available. The bad news is that five of them aren't available here.

The US handset market is chronically behind Europe and Asia, and, in the world of haptic phones, that fact couldn't be more stark. You can, however, buy an unlocked phone abroad or online and use it in America.

Here are the European and Asian haptic phones not sold by U.S. carriers:

  • Samsung's Giorgio Armani
  • LG Prada
  • Samsung F700
  • Samsung SPH-M4650
  • LG KU990 Viewty
If you want to play it safe and buy directly from a US carrier, you have two handsets available for the holiday buying season:
  • RAZR2 V8: The Motorola RAZR2 V8 phone has a 2-in. external display with haptic keys that shake very quickly (activating the silent vibration feature momentarily) so you know when you clicked one of the external buttons.
  • LG Voyager: Verizon Wireless will soon offer the LG Voyager, which is a feature-packed device with a 2.81-in. external touch screen. The screen's haptic system is what LG calls VibeTouch tactile feedback.
Haptic feedback is a very new addition to the constantly growing mobile phone feature set. By next year, it will be standard on many high-end phones. In the meantime, if you want be way ahead of the trend, buy one of the new haptic phones now available.

Someday soon haptics will shake up the whole mobile phone market. But for now, they can shake your fingers.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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