A revolution is upon us, and you can feel it. Literally.

Haptics--haptic means “related to the sense of touch”--are begin­ning to rework the way we interact with gadgets and devices. You’ve probably already encountered them in one of their basic forms: actuators--tiny motors--in your Cadillac that vibrate your seat if you aren’t watching the road. Likewise, your Apple Watch features what Cupertino cutely calls a “taptic engine,” which issues gentle reminders with taps or buzzes.

But imagine a world where remote employees can “touch” machines in a distant factory, or a surgical resident can feel what it’s like to operate on a human brain--minus any danger to a real patient. Haptics can also create the sensation of a raised keyboard on your iPhone or allow you to feel a suit you might buy online.

“Look at highly realistic 3-D graphics on cell phones and web­pages, and add highly realistic 3-D touch,” says Suvranu De, an engineering department head at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “That opens up a huge market.” And huge possibilities.

How haptics work

The technology behind the devices that reach out and touch you.

For technology: Behind every haptic product are complex algorithms translating touch into code and commands.

For devices: Today, that buzzing or tapping feeling comes from actuators--miniature motors. In the not-too-distant future, it will come from ultrasonic vibrations.

For you: None of this works without your wondrous nervous system, identifying the difference between, say, a buzz and a tap.

Haptically happening

Though it’s still early days for this technology, entrepreneurs are creating and bringing to market many revolutionary products based on it.


These shoes and insoles interact with a smartphone app to help with navigation. Set your destination, start walking, and your left or right shoe will vibrate when it’s time to turn in that direction. One key target market: the visually impaired.


Alert shirt
With this jersey, the Down Under--based company Wearable Experiments lets fans feel what their favorite Australian Rules Football players experience, from racing heart rates to crushing hits. An adult take on this technology shows up in the company’s Fundawear, undergarments that, well, “allow physical touch to be transferred wirelessly between couples and re-created on their skin.”


Last year, this company started shipping rings that buzz or vibrate to alert you to texts, phone calls, meetings, and when your Uber driver arrives. This year, Ringly raised $5.1 million, which it will use to create other haptically driven products.


Named for the doctor who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, this wristband can be programmed to deliver a mild electric shock when the wearer takes an action (biting nails, smoking a cigarette, eating fast food) he or she is trying to stop.


What's next

As with many new technologies, the future for haptics seems fantastical--and yet it’s probably right around the corner.

Breaking free from moving parts: Ben Long led a team from England’s University of Bristol in developing a system employing ultrasound that allows users to see and feel three-dimensional shapes created by air disturbances.

Draw it in the air: Instead of using a pen to sketch out their next big idea, what if designers could feel a creation as they make it?

You can build it--from afar: Factory assembly will be transformed: Think of remote teams working from anywhere who can feel a faraway shop floor’s tools in their hands.

But how does that countertop feel?: Apple has applied for a patent that combines actuator-facilitated haptics with temperature controls to produce the feel of different surfaces such as metal, wood, and stone.

The "manual typewriter" setting comes later: Hong Tan, of Microsoft’s Human-Computer Interaction Group, is prototyping an onscreen keyboard that re-creates the feel of an actual keyboard--without the buttons.