Haptics, a Technological Underdog, Rises as Key Player in Consumer and Military UI/UX

February 26, 2021 by Jake Hertz

While haptics are fairly basic in design from an engineering standpoint, these systems are likely to play an important role in AR/VR, military technology, and the "tactile internet."

When you think about cutting-edge technology, you don’t normally think about haptics. While currently most integral to the smartphone industry, haptics have been playing a crucial role in fields like AR/VR, military applications, and even 5G communications.

According to a recent IDTechEx Research report, 2021 may be a critical year for haptics—despite the fact that this technology rarely makes headlines. Still, the analysts claim that suppliers for the driver, actuators, and software for key haptic components accelerate year over year. The report forecasts the haptics market will be worth $5 billion by 2025.


Basic circuit diagram of a vibrating haptic touchscreen

Basic circuit diagram of a vibrating haptic touchscreen. Image used courtesy of Catelani, Ciani, Barile, and Liberatori and IEEE Xplore

In a previous article, AAC contributor Steve Taranovich addressed the circuit-level details of capacitive and resistive touchscreens and haptics. While basic in design, haptics are poised to affect consumer and military systems—from AR gloves to the " tactile internet" in coming years.


Haptics Bring Responsive Touch to AR/VR

Human-machine interaction researchers believe that integrating haptics into AR/VR systems is key to the user experience. After all, haptics response allows the virtual environment to interact with users' sense of touch and pressure.

For example, researchers from the National University of Singapore are hailing haptic-feedback smart gloves that utilize triboelectric-based finger-bending sensors, palm-sliding sensors, and piezoelectric mechanical stimulators in order to provide users with realistic sensations.


Proposed smart glove for AR/VR

Proposed smart glove for AR/VR. Image used courtesy of Zhu et al.

The researchers couple these sensors with new machine learning techniques that provide the users with haptic feedback when their hands encounter a virtual object. With this machine learning technique, the glove was proven to achieve object recognition with an accuracy of 96%. 


Haptic Joysticks, Gloves, and Exoskeletons in the Military

The military has also found effective uses for haptics. Similar to the integration of haptics for AR, the U.S. army has reported using haptic joysticks and gloves to control robots and exoskeletons. Haptic-controlled exoskeletons can significantly decrease the demanding physical workload for soldiers while also aiding in rehabilitation.

Beyond this, tactile systems introduce performance advantages to soldiers. People wearing these systems can interpret and respond to tactile cues while in high-stress, high-risk environments (e.g airplane cockpit), leading to better performance and safer outcomes. 


The COMMAND system

The COMMAND system. Image used courtesy of Elliot et al. 

As a result of these proven successes, the U.S. military is now working on a COMMAND (communication-based operational multi-modal automated navigation device) system. This system is a haptic glove that allows for real-time communications based on hand signals. The glove itself includes six accelerometers, a gyroscope, and a digital compass for automated recognition of standard hand and arm signals, gestures, pointing, and weapon firing.

The army hopes that COMMAND will one day provide real-time geospatial reports and tools for pre-mission planning and review. 


How Haptics May Bring the "Tactile Internet" to Life

With the many applications that 5G is promising to yield, one of the most exciting is what researchers are calling the “tactile internet.” 

The tactile internet is a proposed technology that will allow internet users to physically control remote devices by transfering haptic information. Through the tactile internet, users would be able to wirelessly control both real and virtual objects—for example, machines in a factory. 


An example of haptic communication

An example of haptic communication. Image used courtesy of Antonakoglou et al.

A particularly exciting application of the tactile internet is “teleoperation," which allows users to experience remote immersion including remote touch. This ability to physically interact with a remote environment is achieved by exchanging multi-modal information, including video, audio, and haptics.

The researchers go as far as to say that the tactile internet could influence an “unprecedented revolution in almost every segment of society with applications and use cases like mobile augmented video content, road traffic/autonomous driving, healthcare, smart grid, remote education, and remote immersion/interaction among others.” 


An Unsung Hero in High-Tech Applications?

In a recent All About Circuits/Moore’s Lobby podcast with NASA astronaut Matthew Dominick, Dominick and podcast host Dave Finch discuss why touchscreen vs. button interface design is an essential element of a fighter pilot's experience. The same might be said across AR/VR, military, and 5G use cases. 

While haptics are far from the sexiest technology, they are—at least according to IDTechEx Research—geared to play a key role in the user experience for those participating in high-tech immersive entertainment and military service alike.