News & Views

The humble sense

by Contagious Contributor

Jesús Gorriti, design director at Fjord, considers the opportunities for haptic technology.

This article is the second in a series of inquiries about the future of brands and haptic technologies. Read the first, Christian Haas' take on rewarding touchscreen interactions. Stay tuned as new perspectives roll out over the next few weeks, and don't forget to check out our take on haptics from Issue 36. For more in-person haptic stimulation, come hear Julia Schwarz and experience Qeexo at Most Contagious NYC or Ivan Poupyrev at Most Contagious London.

We live in an overstimulated world, where all of our senses can be reached, but in technology this has vastly been focused on visual over auditory senses. However, all of our senses complement each other and have strengths depending on the context. For the emerging field of haptic technology, this opens up opportunities to both enhance and provide more efficient experiences.

At Fjord, we look at the ways in which design and technology can help make people's lives better. There is a fundamental question around why the user is coming to the experience that helps to guide how we approach design:

Is this an experience the user wants? For the experiences that people desire, they must be immersive. For haptic technology, touch must help enhance the experience - whether that may be a more immersive and multi-sensory video experience or a visual, tactile, and spacial gaming experience.

Is this an experience the user needs? For the experiences people need, they must be efficient. For haptics this can translate into giving feedback that allows people to quickly and easily understand what's going on around them or communicate with each other.

This understanding of context and the role of our different senses within different settings is important for designing usable and viable services. Our tactile sense is pervasive: almost every human has the ability to feel. Touch can be one of the most subtle forms of communication, yet it helps lend us empathy, is something that as humans we need and crave, and can give useful feedback when our other senses are overloaded. The most common applications of haptic technology thus far have mostly been in entertainment: enhancing the 'realness' of a video game or simulation of physical objects. But how can haptic technology actually help improve people's daily lives?

In the design of interfaces, the understanding of a person's context is key to providing the right communication touch points at the right moments. In a scenario where a person is driving, it is a safety issue to force people to use visual cues when their eyes need to be on the road, and in this context, utilising touch is a great solution.

In the automotive industry, haptic technology has actually been used for a while. When automatic steering wheels were first introduced, a common complaint was that it felt as if there was little control without any physical feedback as a driver increased their speed or turned. Haptic technology was then implemented to provide natural resistance in the steering wheel. The opportunities for haptic technology in cars to enhance the feeling of luxury as well as increase safety are immense. Porsches are designed so that the engine is in the middle of the car, behind the driver's seat, so that the driver can feel the power and vibration from the engine. One of Audi's electric concept cars adds sound effects so that it can announce its presence. It's not a far stretch to imagine how the driving experience can be enhanced through haptic technology to amplify the feeling of acceleration and engine power.

But, this concept can also be used to promote safer driving by allowing drivers to enjoy their cars while accelerating more safely. A new Ford Mustang ShelbyGT500 features a haptic shifter knob that vibrates every time the car engine hits 3000 rpm to remind the driver to change gears. For the aggressive driver, it could be that as he or she continues to accelerate unsafely, the gearstick begins to rattle more, the seat starts to vibrates just beyond comfort, and the resistance on the gas pedal increases until the driver lessens their acceleration.

As cars become more personalised with features such as keyless entry that also adjusts your seat when you sit in the driver's seat, there is also a role for haptics. An elegant feature for keyless entry could help people to find their cars without blaring the horn in a parking lot. In a game of hot-and-cold, the key could vibrate more strongly as you get closer to the car.

In a time where we increasingly lose physical interfaces to touchscreens, haptic technology can provide the best of both worlds. Forcing drivers to look at a screen to change a song or the temperature is unsafe, but perhaps that touchscreen can also be personalised and optimised to drivers and provide haptic feedback to swipes and slides and simulates physical buttons. So as your seat adjusts when you enter the car, so does the interface of the touchscreen to the items that matter most to a driver, and in the most convenient positions for you relative to your seat height, arm length, and most-frequently used menu items. You can feel if you've swiped up the A/C fan to the max setting, or if you've adjusted the bass on the stereo without having to look at the screen. With the addition of haptics, the personalisation and flexibility that a touchscreen offers can safely be delivered to drivers.

To help promote safety, haptic technology can also give subtle signals to drivers of oncoming danger, help with better navigation, and keep drivers awake. A quiver to the left side of the door and seat indicates a car speeding up to pass you on the left. A shake of the steering wheel to the opposite direction warns you that you're drifting out of the lane. GPS navigation can be enhanced with physical feedback for when you should be preparing to turn. Panic moments around 'Which right turn on this fork? How many more yards?' can be avoided with gentle vibrations that notify you of the direction and when it's time to shift lanes or veer right.

According to a 2008 study by the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, 20% of all road accidents are caused by driver fatigue. To combat this, there are already eyetracker systems that monitor driver's eyes. The steering wheel and seat can also be embedded with sensors to monitor your heart rate and body temperature to catch overall signs of sleepiness. When your biometric patterns reveal you may be getting sleepy, your seat jolts you back awake with a series of little shocks.

All of these little pieces of feedback can come together to build a more enjoyable and also much safer driving experience. Your car can get to know you better and respond to your needs dynamically while helping you drive better.

The possibilities with the evolving implementations of haptic technology can span from a simple piece of feedback - a vibrate or shake - to more immersive experience. There is a powerful opportunity to create more enjoyment of these everyday experiences while also enhancing their efficacy, and in the case of a car, improve safety and awareness.

Jesús Gorriti is design director at service design consultancy Fjord.