Fujitsu debuted a new project at Mobile World Congress, the huge mobile-gadgetry convention going on this week in Barcelona, and it has the potential to change the way we use our gadgets. More specifically, it could change the way we touch our gadgets, by giving touch screens a flexible texture–one minute it could be smooth, the next bumpy, the next slippery.
Since the beginning of the current era of touch screens, dating back to the release of the original iPhone in 2007, we’ve seen the essential failing of the touch screen as one of monotony: it always feels the same. A physical keyboard lets you roll from key to key, gives you the satisfaction of depressing a button and lets you know that you’ve triggered whatever action you want. But what if a touch screen could do the same?
We’ve put aside the problem of tactility with touch screens because they allow for so much flexibility; your phone can display any kind of controls, can use its sensors in a variety of ways. Your phone can look like a QWERTY keyboard or a piano, a book or a gamepad, all in a split-second.
But there’s something to be said for the added, elevated feeling of tactility. With this kind of tech, a piano app could feel like a piano, a painting app could give the precise friction of a paint-laden brush against canvas, and a game could really feel like you’re pushing little candies around the screen.
Fujitsu’s prototype uses air: ultrasonic waves, which are sound waves that are inaudible to us, vibrate the air just over the top of the screen. Air is a much more forgiving, flexible surface than the actual screen, so Fujitsu is able to vibrate the air in lots of different ways to provide different feedback.
We’ve seen a bunch of different attempts to address tactility in touch screens. There’s Tactus, which includes a crazy fluid-filled sac on top of the screen that regroups into cells, giving the screen a real, non-virtual physical feedback. There are various haptic feedback devices–these include tiny little motors that create a brief vibration, as seen in everything from video game controllers to the home and back buttons on some Android and Windows phones. But haptic feedback is imprecise; it doesn’t give much of a sensation besides a buzz.
Fujitsu’s solution might be even better, given that it doesn’t change the physical appearance or dimensions of the device, like Tactus, but can still deliver many different kinds of feedback, unlike the vibration-heavy haptics. Bonnie Cha over at Re/Code got to try it out, and found that the system could indeed make the screen feel bumpy, extra smooth and slippery, or even like the plucked strings of a harp, just by vibrating the air. Very cool!
No word yet on release date or price.