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Disney invents touchscreen that lets you feel textures

A user touches a live video feed on a screen designed to transmit not only audio and visual, but haptic — or touch — information. (Disney)

The company that brought you the first animated feature film and the multiplane camera may be at work on its most game-changing invention yet: Flat touchscreens that let you feel the shape and texture of pictured objects, almost like they were actually there.

The technology is called “tactile rendering of 3D features,” and an early version of a rendering algorithm has already been developed by engineers at Disney Research in Pittsburgh. The process behind it is, predictably, both technical and confusing, but the basic premise is that small, electronic pulses can trick your fingers into perceiving bumps and texture, even if the surface is actually flat.

That’s not a new discovery — scientists have known since 2001 that friction is the predominant force that lets you perceive textures. But Disney’s findings, which the company will present at a user interface symposium in Scotland this week, suggests sweeping applications in devices we already use, like smartphones and tablets. Imagine reading a topographic map and actually feeling the hills and valleys. Or — in the far more distant and ambitious future — shopping for something online and feeling it through your phone before you buy.

“Touch interaction has become the standard for smartphones, tablets and even desktop computers, so designing algorithms that can convert the visual content into believable tactile sensations has immense potential for enriching the user experience,” Ivan Poupyrev, the director of Disney’s Interaction Group, said in a release.

But the technology could also do more than merely enrich user experience, a fact Disney hints at in an accompanying demonstration video. Textured screens could prove invaluable to blind or disabled users, both for accessibility and for getting a sense of their surroundings — the technology can translate 2D videos to 3D tactile renderings in real time. And more distant applications could potentially revolutionize fields like education and medicine.

This is, of course, still just research — it could be years before any genuinely 3D tablets hit the marketplace. Until then, we have stand-ins like the Tactus tablet, which are still pretty cool.