News & Views

A sense of connection

by Contagious Contributor

Christian Haas, ECD of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, NY, considers how haptic feedback can reward touchscreen interactions.

This article is the first in a series of inquiries about the future of brands and haptic technologies. Stay tuned as new perspectives roll out over the next few weeks.

Growing up in Brazil in the 80s, I didn't have much access to gadgets. Every family vacation abroad included a mandatory stop at an electronics store, where I'd unload my accrued allowance on the latest thing with buttons. I was born a geek, but it was only in my teenage years that I discovered I was also an unconditional early adopter. Early adopters pay the price for braving unproven (and often untested) technologies.

Electronics companies count on you as much as the tobacco industry counts on cigarette addicts -- it doesn't matter how big the warnings are; you will still buy. I bought every iPhone model ever made. In 2007 the first iPhone changed the mobile industry forever -- not because it was the first touch-screen phone (it wasn't) but because it was the first phone with a touch screen that actually worked.

Today touch has become the standard for electronic interfaces. It's what you come to expect when you see a glowing screen. It's not uncommon to see toddlers walking up to a TV to touch, swipe and pinch its screen as if it were a giant iPad. Touch creates a sense of control and intimacy with content capable of evoking emotions that buttons could never achieve. Touch removes anything between you and the content, making it tangible, even if only in your mind. Kids who are touching a TV do so because they want to interact with Lightning McQueen to get closer to him -- to connect.

And our relationship with touch screens becomes even more intimate when they touch back. Haptic feedback is not anything new; it's been around for years in video-game controllers that create a physical response to simulate what's happening on the screen. Some iPhone games like Dots also use vibration cues to indicate a completed task, which, in good Pavlovian fashion, makes you feel good about every buzz.

Our San Francisco office just launched an app that uses haptic feedback to reward touch-screen interactions. Touch Room lets you touch someone from afar, keeping loved ones within arm's reach. All you have to do is join a virtual room and move your finger on your phone's screen, and the other people will see your finger represented as a dot on their phone. When they touch the place where your finger is, the phone vibrates, rewarding both people with a sense of connection. It's a simple way to feel each other through your phone.

Brand interactions can take advantage of haptic feedback by looking at it not as a technology but as a reward. Hallmark could create digital greeting cards that connect senders with receivers through touch. Instead of mailing a 'Hang in there' card, loved ones could touch you while you're in bed with a flu. You'd get more than a signed picture of a cat hanging on a tree branch, and your friends could touch you without getting your flu. Everybody wins.

The technology could be the same as the one we developed for the Touch Room app, connecting multiple devices and rewarding interactions with haptic feedback. When you open the digital card, the person who sent it would get a message on her phone alerting that you're ready to play. The sender, we'll call her Mary, can then sign the card in front of you (you'd see her signature draw itself on your screen in real time as Mary's finger moves on her phone). The card can be designed with interactive elements that you and Mary can play together, like a piano keyboard or a wishbone that both can pull apart.

Brands like Cheerios, Crayola or Fisher Price could create interactive children's books that working parents could read to their kids while on the road. Dads stuck in airports could narrate Goodnight Moon to their daughters at bedtime while moving characters together on the pages like a digital pop-up book. For every interaction, there's a haptic reward.

The interactive book could be created as an app that both the dad and the daughter would have on their iPads. When both apps are open, they'd connect like a Google Hangout allowing both parties to see and hear each other alongside the interactive book pages. What haptic feedback could do here is add another level of connection that goes far beyond what voice or video calls can achieve.

Haptic feedback is still in its infancy. Most devices offer only short vibrations not unlike the ones you get with a new text message--the whole phone vibrates, not just the area you touched. But there are some really interesting technologies bubbling up.

Tactus's displays can morph themselves, revealing transparent physical buttons that rise up on demand. Disney's Aireal provides interactive tactile experiences in midair by blowing wind vortexes against your skin. The University of Tokyo is researching touchable holograms using acoustic radiation to create a sensation of pressure on your hands.

While the examples above are unlikely to hit the mainstream, this one could: earlier this year Apple was awarded a patent for localised haptic feedback that would allow them to make touch screens that respond to where you touch them. It's not clear when the technology will show up in iPhones and iPads (or if it ever will), but it has the potential to become the new standard that no toddler will live without. And, of course, when it hits the shelves, early adopters like me will be standing in line.

Christian Haas is ECD of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, NY