Force feedback could be the sequel to the touchscreen craze

Ever since the iPhone came along in 2007, touchscreens have ruled electronic gadgets. Haptics, or touch feedback, hasn’t done as well. Will a new generation of better touch-feedback technologies take the touch revolution to the next level?

Christophe Ramstein, the chief executive of haptics startup Strategic Polymers, believes it will happen. He showed off a force-feedback module, dubbed an actuator (a tiny vibration motor) that was made out of bendable plastic and was the thinnest in the world today. Ramstein wants these little modules to be built into all kinds of gadgets so they can become easier to use, and he is one of a number of folks in a growing haptics industry who is encouraged about the coming era of force feedback.

“Existing technologies won’t make it,” Ramstein (pictured left) said in a talk at the Emerging Displays conference in Santa Clara, Calif., on Monday. “We need a revolution. We need breakthrough technology.”

The lack of tactile feedback in most of today’s smartphones and tablets is a problem. Devices with physical keyboards have tiny keys that are too small for a lot of people to accurately hit them. Typing mistakes are hard to correct and they’re frustrating. You can often only use one finger at a time.

With haptics, the newest devices are bendable and hard to break. They can improve accuracy of touch by confirming that you have hit the right spot on a screen, Ramstein said. And they can produce both sound and vibrations. Haptic feedback gives you realism, confirmation, and rich communication. Besides Strategic Polymers, haptic companies include Immersion, Artificial Muscle, Senseg, Tactus, Smart Materials, Kyocera, AAC, Murata, SMK, and HiWave.

Steve Kingsley-Jones, another speaker at the event and the director of product management at Immersion, agreed that touch technology is critical to how we absorb and understand the world.

“It’s our goal to ensure that every mobile device on the planet feels good,” Kingsley-Jones said.

That is indeed a feel-good message. But even after years of trying, companies like Immersion have succeeded in getting their haptics technology built into tens of millions of cell phones, which are manufactured in the hundreds of millions every year. It won’t be easy to convince companies such as Apple, which has resisted force feedback technology for years, to adopt it now.

Ramstein said that the improved electro-mechanical polymer (EMP) technology that his company makes will enable haptics that is smaller, cheaper, and lighter than existing technology today. The EMP technology works by causing a material to bend when an electrical charge is applied to it. The chain of plastic molecules changes its shape under an applied voltage.

“It’s almost like a bag of cubes,” he said. “If you organize them and stack them, they take less space. When they are not organized, they take a lot more space. When you apply a voltage, the molecules line up.”

Ramstein believes forecasts that predict that 60 percent of smartphones will have advanced haptics by 2015.

By advanced, Ramstein means technology that vibrates in multiple locations, produces localized sounds, is integrated with a sensor, and supports multiple finger touches. It has to bend with a device and be both ultralight and flexible. Ramstein said that his modules have a response time of under 1 millisecond, making them faster, more elastic, and more forceful than competing technologies such as piezoceramic or elastomer. It is less than 50 microns thick (a micron is a millionth of a meter) and weighs less than a gram.

State College, Pa.-based Strategic Polymers hopes that its technology finds use beyond mobile applications. Other markets include car dashboards, home appliances, touchpads on laptops, speakers, and surgical tools. It is just one option of many haptics technologies that are coming down the road.

Ramstein became president and chief executive of Strategic Polymers in April. He replaced Ralph Russo, who ran the company since its founding in 2006. Russo was appointed chairman, replacing cofounder Qiming Zhang, who remains an advisor. Ramstein was previously chief technology officer at Immersion, a pioneer in haptics technology.

In 2010, the company focused its attention on haptics. The technology is still in development, and it is attracting attention from mobile device manufacturers, Ramstein said. The firm has about 20 employees.

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