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Microsoft shows off 3D touchscreen that 'touches' back


Microsoft have shown off a new touchscreen that mimics how physical objects feel by offering ‘tactile feedback’ to users.

The new research is the latest in what is known as haptic technology – hardware that takes advantage of the feeling of touch by offering feedback via pressure or vibration. As described on the Microsoft blog haptic technology “[does] for the sense of touch what computer graphics does for vision.” 

The new project uses a touchscreen with a robotic arm to adjust how ‘hard’ different surfaces feel to the user. When a person touches one of the objects displayed (the demo had cubes made from different materials – stone and sponge), the screen responds, tracking what the user is touching and pushing back against them.

"The force-feedback monitor responds to convey the sensation of different materials:  The stone block “feels” hard to the touch and requires more force to push, while the sponge block is soft and easy to push."

This returned pressure is combined with more standard 3D screen technology, that tracks the user and adjusts at what angle and size the object is displayed on screen to give the illusion of depth. Combining this with the touch feedback is enough “for your brain to accept the virtual world as real,” said Microsoft engineer Michel Pahud.

Developed by a group of engineers at Microsoft’s research center in Redmond, the team behind the project hope that the new technology could have uses in the medical profession, with the possibility of using haptic feedback to help navigate large stores of data for doctors:

“I could see an image of the front of a brain,” says Pahud, “and pushing a finger through the layers of the brain to travel through the data. I could imagine receiving haptic feedback when you encountered an anomaly, such as a tumor, because we can change the haptic response based on what you touch.”

“You could have different responses for when you touch soft tissue versus hard tissue, which makes for a very rich experience.”

To confirm that the users were really responding to the touch feedback, rather than simply the visual, the team even blindfolded a team of volunteers.

“I was impressed with how many people got the shapes,” says Pahud “There were even some subjects who were 100 per cent correct. That was definitely a surprise.”

Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only company working on new forms of haptic feedback. Disney Research launched their own technology named TeslaTouch back in 2010 that creates a “broad range of tactile sensations on touchscreens.

Instead of using mechanical motion as in Microsoft’s project, Disney’s TeslaTouch generates minor electric fields in the screen that create friction by attracting the individual’s finger or hand by varying degrees.

Other innovations have included Tactus Technology – a new technology that inserts a layer of fluid underneath touch screens that can bubble up to instant buttons.