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If Apple's iPad 3 Screen Is Haptic, Everything Will Change (Again)

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In the wee few hours before Apple's iPad press event today, a fresh new rumor has the tech world abuzz with excitement. (Does the tech world have any other condition?) As well as stuffing a super-high-resolution screen in the iPad 3, Apple is thought to have also enabled haptic feedback on the display's surface. Since the iPad is basically a screen with electronics, this means the entire device becomes a haptic machine. That would change everything.

If you're nonplussed, haptics is the science of delivering sensations to the user of a device--you've experienced a low form of it if you've used a PlayStation controller, which gently vibrates or violently wobbles in feedback to your clumsy attempts to snowboard down the digital ski slopes of SSX for example. Some smartphones like Samsung's Anycall have employed slightly more advanced haptic systems to give your fingertip some kind of feedback when you tap at the display...but it's not exactly a widely implemented tech.

But now there's this suggestion that Apple's made good on a number of its patents and implemented haptic technology in a very advanced way on the iPad screen. They've probably done so by licensing the physical tech from another firm and melding it in a very seamless way with the rest of the iPad hardware and, most importantly, software. This would mean much more than just feeling a nondescript "jolt" when you dab at the otherwise featureless glossy face of the tablet.

If, as The Guardian is implying, Apple's gone with Senseg's ESense system, it'll mean that the screen will be able to sense ridges, cloth, sand-like surfaces, and dynamic moving textures. Senseg's sytem uses an electrostatic effect to physically attract your fingertip microscopic amounts--enough for your highly sensitive finger nerves to feel--and it's clever enough to dynamically generate a sensation that you're moving an object on the screen when you push at it with your finger.

Imagine Apple really does use this, or adopts similar tech from a different firm. It'll change everything about mobile computing. Buttons would have edges on screen, enabling easier use of a virtual keyboard--indeed they may become as practical to use as the physical keyboard on your laptop. Virtual joysticks for games would be way more intuitive, with your finger centered on the invisible control panels because you can feel where they are, and the games would be able to deliver sensation feedback a little like the PS3's controller (think what that would do to the mobile gaming industry). Blind users may be able to sense Braille-like patterns, or perhaps even Braille characters themselves. Kid-friendly apps would gain a whole new dimension, with textures to match the furry sheep in a story or whatever. E-textbooks could deliver sensations that matched the subject being taught.

Apple can do this because it's totally in control of the iPad design, so if it enabled haptic feedback in iOS it would be accessible and reliable for developers to place it into their apps--doing the same for Android, with so diverse a hardware base, would be nigh on impossible. Apple's also said by some to have planned the high-res screen for the iPad 2, but couldn't secure supply...meaning that the HD screen is in some senses an "old" innovation for Apple, leaving space for the new haptic innovation.

Plus if Apple actually did do this, it would completely sew up the tablet PC market for at least another couple of years. Meaning that for minimal technical outlay, and perhaps a fractional dip in profit on each tablet sold, Apple would secure billions of dollars of extra revenue.

If. It's all an enormous if. But even if the iPad 3 (or iPad "HD"?) isn't this touchy, you can be sure this tech'll arrive in Apple's devices at some point, because it's so very potent--an interface revolution as potent as Siri should turn out to be.

Chat about this article with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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