Haptics, the science of making devices more touchy-feely, is getting more attention from researchers and investors.
A haptics startup launched by two Northwestern University professors got a $5 million boost from investors that include Chicago venture fund R7 Partners, trading firm Peak6 and Northwestern.
Tanvas is developing next-generation technology for touch screens that will allow them to mimic the sensations of things, such as making objects on the screen feel heavy or light, stretchy or stiff, sticky or slick.
The company was formed four years ago by Northwestern professors Ed Colgate and Michael Peshkin, who are experts in haptics.
The funding will be used to commercialize Tanvas’ technology. The investment was led by R7 Partners, a Chicago-based venture fund. The company has a handful of workers and expects to reach about a dozen by the end of the year, said CEO Greg Topel. It also will be moving to downtown Chicago from Evanston.
BEYOND THE PHONE
Interest in haptics, or the science of touch, has picked up since the smartphone took off eight years ago when the iPhone was introduced. As the phone becomes more important for shopping and other tasks, the ability to get the sensation of touch is becoming more critical.
It extends beyond consumer electronics to the automotive industry, which has incorporated touch screens into dashboards of vehicles, adding to visual clutter and distraction. Researchers in medical devices have been working to develop haptics for prosthetics that can restore the sense of touch to amputees.
Colgate and Peshkin are professors at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and researchers in its Neuroscience and Robotics Lab, which is seen as a leader in haptics. Northwestern is hosting the World Haptics Conference today through June 25, which is expected to attract more than 400 researchers.
For now, haptics mainly involves vibration, such as the silent alert feature on a cellphone or the ability to feel your heartbeat on a smartwatch. But Tanvas’ leaders envision a world where you can feel the sensation of touching cashmere or a dog’s fur or sandpaper.
“What Apple started to do is create experiences—you feel your heartbeat through the back of the watch,” said Topel, an engineer who previously worked for ITW, Motorola and Brunswick’s Life Fitness division. “We want to create experiences. There are a lot of touch experiences that are very memorable. We’re trying to move away from sensory confirmation to things that are expressive and mean something to people.”
AIRPLANES TO PAGERS
The first haptics technology was built into the yokes of airplane controls to give pilots sensory feedback and alert them to potential problems. That was followed by incorporating vibration into pagers and, later, cellphones.
“This phenomenon has been known since the ’50s,” Topel said. “The most significant thing we’re doing is simultaneous position-sensing and haptics. We’re replacing your touch screen with something that has input and output.”
Here’s how it works: Friction and static create an electronic wave form at specific locations on the screen that mimics the sensation you feel when you touch an object. Software algorithms replicate the sensations of specific objects.
“Your brain believes that texture happened,” Topel said. “We’re replicating the wave form you’d feel in the real world.”
Tanvas is building a toolkit that it hopes software developers will use to create a library of specific textures and sensations. It’s a long journey, however. Colgate and Peshkin have been working on the problem for about a decade. The company got seed funding from an unnamed consumer-electronics company and recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Tanvas hopes the technology will be ready for commercial distribution soon.