Touch Screen Technology, from iPhones to Ovens, Continues to Push Forward

Allison Okamura, director of Johns Hopkins's Haptics Laboratory, works with robots and devices that can help surgeons operate with a steadier hand.
Allison Okamura, director of Johns Hopkins's Haptics Laboratory, works with robots and devices that can help surgeons operate with a steadier hand. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 15, 2008

Did you know that those few places on your body where you cannot grow hair are by far the most sensitive? Like the bottoms of your feet?

That's why the young woman with the metal probe is scratching away at a rough surface in a Johns Hopkins University lab. Suppose you wanted to know what something thousands of miles away felt like -- as easily as you could see what it looks like by aiming a remote Internet camera. What happens if that smart probe transmits the sensation to all those dense nerve receptors along your tingly arch?

After all, there are some occasions when only touch will do, aren't there?

This has been the year computers began to deliver feelings to us in a mainstream way. Following their uncanny ability first to interact with our eyes via screens and then our ears through speakers, now tens of millions of them are acquiring touch feedback. You touch the machine, it nuzzles you back.

Feel matters. It's the pea under the princess's mattress. "The world is going digital, but people are analog," says Gayle Schaeffer of Immersion Corp., a leader in touch feedback. "We like real things. We touch real things all day long. We need to interact with something that feels real. In the digital world, touch is so much more personal and private and non-intrusive."

Feeeeeeeellllings, woo-o-o,

Feeeeeeeellllings, woo-o-o,

Feeeeeeeellll you again in my arms.

* * *

Computer screens that you can usefully touch are as common as ATMs and airport check-in kiosks. With the explosive popularity of the Apple iPhone, it became clear that soon, everyone was going to have a touch screen in her pocket.

Indeed, the touch-surface juggernaut marches relentlessly toward the day when push buttons that physically move in and out are gone forever. Already being conquered are televisions, washers, ovens, printers and workout machines, says Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association. Touch screens are now invading dashboards, desktop phones, remote controls, music players, navigators and cameras.


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