SCIENCE & TECH

Get Ready: A 3D Phone for Your Fingers

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Your phone's screen looks luscious, but how's it feel? A startup puts realistic faux textures and objects on glass displays.

If Apple Inc.'s first promise was to delight customers with technology, it seems that the company hasn't been very faithful of late. But the same is true for all makers of handheld devices.

That could change, though, and in the very near future, by adding a new and unquestionably useful dimension: Touch.

Get Ready: A 3D Phone for Your Fingers

Everyone of a certain age remembers when they first held a smartphone. In my case, it was the first iPhone. Everything about it was fluid and crisp, and I was delighted to use the app — I think it was iBeer — that made the phone look like a draining beer mug when I tilted it.

Many years on, the delight largely is gone. Anyone who gets worked up by a new phone invariably talks about dimensions, price, camera lenses and battery life. While important, those factors are so boring (skewer me in the comments).

But a Northwestern University spinoff, Tanvas Inc., has developed TanvasTouch, software and hardware that promises to add the sense of touch to sight and hearing that phones, tablets and laptops can communicate in. More on how it works in a moment.

The most obvious benefit of such a product is that it presents you with a visible and tactile keyboard. Typing on even a tablet requires a lot of attention and patience because you have to aim your fingertips using your eyes.

This field is called haptics — communication through touch. One example is the way a physical keyboard's buttons are shaped and how they click when pressed.

Think this is obvious and esoteric? Watchmaker Timex came out with a supremely useless keyboard in 1982 with blister keys — sheets of almost-flat and hard-to-press plastic bubbles over switches.

Tanvas co-founder Ed Colgate said his company's product uses electrostatics to fool your brain into thinking your fingertips are feeling conditions like soapy and raspy, textures like satin and wood grain, and physical objects as subtle as the bas relief images on coins.

And Tanvas, which received $5 million in June 2015 from two investment firms and Northwestern University, is able to do this with no moving parts.

Anyone who has seen how electricity can harmlessly make a person's hair stand on end has seen a demonstration of electrostatics. In the case of TanvasTouch, however, a thin, transparent layer of very small electrodes is laid just beneath the surface of a piece of glass. The electrodes pull your finger toward the display.

The solid-state technology is able to do this pulling at very small scales and very quickly, delivering sensations to many parts of a fingertip, which enables it to simulate extremely subtle textures like, say, a yellow chick's downy feathers. And it can do this for multiple fingers on the screen simultaneously.

Colgate acknowledges that this architecture also presents an engineering hurdle.

"Being so close to the surface, a good scratch will damage the electrodes, too," he said. There are electrodes in phones today, but they are beneath the glass. There, they are protected from casual damage, but too far to affect fingertips.

That doesn't seem to be a showstopper, however.

"We're in conversations with original-equipment manufacturers (phone makers)," Colgate said. "Eighteen months is a reasonably optimistic prediction for release."

There are alternative haptics technologies, of course. The vibrating notification generated by new email is a haptic signal.

Apple has created what it calls a Taptic Engine in the iPhone 7. It simulates the click of a digitally represented home button, for example, by vibrating the phone and playing a noise through the phone's speaker. Other phone makers are employing related strategies.

A few manufacturers are using tiny devices to shake a screen at ultrasonic frequencies, which can't be consciously felt or heard. Colgate's company has played with that idea as well. It created the TPad, a $2,000 smartphone with ultrasonic haptics.

Few TPads have sold, but Colgate says TanvasTouch, which has been in development at the same time as the TPad, is the company's focus.

He said ultrasonic waves created lower-resolution, slower experiences and consume more power than electrostatic methods. And the vibrations have to be isolated from the rest of a phone, which presents another engineering challenge.

The potential market for any successful haptics product is huge. It encompasses portable computing devices, but also settings that make eyes-free machine operation a significant advantage.

That would include cars, trucks and aircraft, but also emergency rooms and robotic-surgery suites. Taking it a step further, a sealed-glass control panel would be preferred for machinery being used in extreme environments, where water, grit and other contaminants can foul up mechanical contro