Touch screens are everywhere, and they're only going to become more prevalent as smart phones and tablets continue to grow in popularity. However, for all their multi-touch wizardry, touch screens are painfully lacking in the area of tactile feedback. Some, like Nokia, have tackled the issue with haptic feedback systems that use vibrations to provide users with a sense of touch. According to a recent patent filing uncovered by New Scientist, Microsoft is taking a different approach.
The patent in question refers to a display that uses a layer of "shape-memory" plastic that changes its physical properties in response to UV light. Depending on the wavelength of light used, the layer can be made to feel soft or hard to the touch. The shape-memory plastic can also be activated to protrude, introducing the possibility of truly tactile textures.
According to Erez Kikin-Gil, the Microsoft researcher responsible for the patent, this feedback mechanism was designed with an eye toward the company's Surface touch, er, table. It's unclear whether the technology would work in significantly smaller slates and smart phones, but I hope it can. Dual-screen notebooks like Toshiba's Libretto and Acer's Iconia really need tactile feedback for their virtual keyboards, and I'd much rather that done with textures than vibration. Even the touchpads on standard notebooks could use a little tactile feedback, and that might be easier to achieve because the shape-memory plastic layer wouldn't have to be transparent like it would in a touch screen.