In the 21st century, technology has moved forwards at an astronomical pace. Tech companies are constantly changing, innovating, and improving available technology to create a more connected and convenient world. There has been a push to find ways to make technology more affordable and widely available to a wider market. In addition, we are now exploring ways to make technology effective and powerful, without costing as much for the environment – for example, hybrid and electric cars are increasing in popularity.

One of the many emerging technologies that has become popular in a lot of different sectors is haptic technology.

What is haptic technology?

The word ‘haptic’ comes from the Greek root word ‘haptikos, which means ‘pertaining to the sense of touch’. Originally, and on a biological level, this is meant as non-verbal communications including shaking hands, high fives, or hugging. Touch is an often overlooked but extremely important sense that we use almost all of the time. Through touch, we receive masses of information that helps us to understand the world around us.

‘Haptic technology’, then, is an umbrella term for any technology that creates an artificial touch sensation to the user when it’s interacted with. This can be done through vibrations, motions, or forces that are activated by touching the sensors. It can emulate the feeling of buttons and dials, all the way up to manipulating virtual objects in mid-air.

Haptics originally emerged in the 1970s as aviation technology, to warn pilots about dangerous flying conditions. It has developed rapidly over the years as we find more and more uses for it, and has made technology much more immersive and user-friendly. At its most simple level, haptic technology is used in things like video game controllers and steering wheels. However, it can also be used for more complicated tasks such as creating virtual objects and enhancing the remote operation of machinery.

The most common type of haptic technology that we encounter in our everyday lives is a smart phone’s touchscreen. The haptics respond as if they are buttons, instead of having a physical one. For example, you can ‘press and hold’ an on-screen button to activate a menu or settings, and the vibration lets you know that the input has been recognised and implemented.

Common Applications

  • Medical devices
  • Video games/virtual reality
  • Computing
  • Automotive
  • Mobile phones
  • Smart watches and fitness trackers

Haptic Technology in Industry

Haptic technology is rapidly growing in industry, with Global Marketing Insights estimating that the market will reach $10 billion by 2026. A lot of this revenue will come from already established consumer goods like cars and mobile devices. However, the increasingly sophisticated technology is allowing for broader application across the board.

Haptic technology can generally be divided into three types:

  • Graspable – The original haptic technology was this type. It involves something that the user holds and manipulates, such as a joystick. As a task is performed, the graspable component gives kinaesthetic feedback to the user to inform what they choose to do next. This type of haptics is often used in robotics and machinery, including bomb disposal robots, and has also been applied by astronauts to make external repairs on spacecraft without having to go outside of it.
  • Touchable – The most common and familiar type of haptic technology, this is the type that is utilised in a smartphone when a user interacts with the screen. This is beginning to be developed further by being able to ‘feel’ a product on the screen as it mimics an object’s texture.
  • Wearable – An increasingly popular version of haptics, the most well-known example being virtual reality (VR) headsets and gloves. Wearables use tactile stimuli, like temperature and pressure, from the nerves in a user’s skin. As well as gaming, product design, and other computing applications, wearable technology is increasingly popular in the health and wellness industry as it can continuously receive biometric data from the user wearing it.

A newer development in haptic technology is known as ‘mid-air haptics’, and doesn’t require physical touch at all. It uses ultrasound rays to simulate the information in the air, and a user can then reach out and ‘touch’ it without the addition of special gloves or glasses. This emerging version of haptics would be especially useful for interactive signage and marketing. A recent example of this is Lego’s 2020 ‘Rebuild the World’ billboard, which allowed people on the street to ‘build’ in mid-air using only their hands.

These different types of haptic technology can be used across a broad range of industries including digital signs and adverts, interactive maps, gaming, computing, and even surgical procedures. Another up-and-coming niche is the online casino industry. Haptic technology allows a player to feel the chips and dice, and creates a more immersive environment without having to leave your home.

Advantages of Haptic Technology in Industry

  • Simulates real working environments, in order to practice procedures with none of the risks involved in ‘real life’.
  • Design and test products without wasting materials – see if and how it works before creating anything physical.
  • Haptics can help in many areas of training, including machinery operation, maintenance, and safety procedures.
  • Increased accessibility of products for disabled or partially-sighted people – an example of this is the Stanford ‘2.5D’ project, helping visually impaired people ‘see’ things through touch
  • Can assist with all aspects of business – as well as user friendliness of the final product, haptic technology can also streamline operations and boost marketing success.
  • Enhance 2D screen with 3D interaction that can be ‘touched’ as well as seen.
  • Haptics enhance recall and increase engagement with the advert or product, making it more memorable and persuasive as a marketing technique.
  • The combination of audio, visual, and haptic technology can increase perceived value of a brand and make the user feel more connected to it.
  • Progress in mid-air haptics means that nothing is physically touched, allowing users to interact hygienically and safely.

Haptic Technology in Automobiles

Driving takes almost all of our concentration and involves a lot of auditory and visual input, and quick processing of this information. Haptic technology can be useful in taking some of this information saturation away from the eyes and ears, by allowing the user to ‘communicate’ with the vehicle by touch – a sense that is less active while driving.

A great number of new cars come pre-equipped with a touchscreen interface built into the dashboard. Originally, these touch screens did not give the user any feedback when options were ‘pressed’ – which is where haptics come in. Feedback from the haptics lets the driver know that the command has been sent without having to look away from the road. This is a much safer way to adjust the radio, climate, etc.

Additionally, haptic technology can be used in contact surfaces of the vehicle, like the seat and steering wheel. Having constant contact with these surfaces means that the car can effectively communicate with the driver at any time. Haptics can convey more important information via vibrations instead of sounds and lights. Some of the ways it can do this are close-distance sensors to warn you if a car is too near, and using vibrations to get your attention when the car senses more signs of error or fatigue.

How it Works

The sensor (for example, an on-screen button) transmits input stimulus to a microcontroller. The microcontroller then creates an amplified output to send to the actuator. An actuator is a small component that causes movements within a mechanism or system. In this case, the actuator generates the haptic feedback required to ‘respond’ to the input stimulus – mostly through tiny vibration motors found in all touch points of the car. This feedback to the user then allows a driver to know that the instruction has been recognised and carried out.

Advantages of Haptic Technology in the Automotive Sector

  • Helps with spatial information, warnings, communication, status of vehicle and environment, general controls, and entertainment system
  • Haptics have been proven to reduce the time needed to complete a task, and lowers the risk of errors – so, less time fiddling with controls
  • People react instinctively to touch, and haptic responses help to increase a sense of control and connection to the vehicle
  • An alternative way to communicate with the vehicle when eye and ears are busy
  • Reaction to haptic feedback is actually faster than visual cues – less reaction time means safer driving
  • Less buttons and knobs on the dashboard – as well as being aesthetically pleasing, less time is spent looking away from the road
  • Perfect for emerging technologies such as electric/autonomous vehicles – haptics help with safety, reliability and performance of vehicles
  • Contributes to user peace of mind because they can ‘feel’ what’s going on as the feedback mimics traditional car vibrations

Application-Specific Integrated Circuits

ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) are custom ICs designed for a customer’s specific application, providing commercial and technical benefits through optimised performance. Mixed signal ASICs (combining digital and analogue circuitry) can encompass the sensing element, signal conditioning and the wired or wireless connectivity in a single package. They are used today by many system developers in a wide variety of applications, including both automotive and industrial markets.

A Custom IC is the go to technology if you are planning to differentiate yourself from your competition, providing cost effective advantages such as optimised and higher performance, higher reliability, lower power consumption and ultimately a smaller footprint than discrete ICs or components. Lifetime supply of the ASIC can also be provided, avoiding the ever increasing issue of obsolescence. Swindon still supplies ASICs that we developed over 25 years ago.

Swindon Silicon Systems, owned by Sensata Technologies, is a global leader in the design and supply of custom IC solutions. With 5 decades of experience, we provide a full turn key service combining ASIC design, production test and order fulfilment. This expertise is all in-house and on-site. Our constant innovation brings the latest high performance, low cost technology to your products. We do not sell chips on the open market ensuring that your IP is for your benefit only.

Swindon Silicon Systems will take you from your initial specification through to designing, qualifying, production testing and supplying your ASIC, for the lifetime of your product.

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