Touch interfaces are becoming increasingly prevalent, but they crucially lack tactile feedback. Haptic feedback can help by using mechanical force, usually in the form of vibration. Electrical feedback appears to have considerably more potential. MIT's Technology Review has the skinny on a new feedback tech being developed by researchers at Disney, of all places. Dubbed REVEL, the approach uses "reverse electrovibration" to alter one's perception of touch. Here's how it works:
An imperceptible electrical signal is introduced across the user's whole body to create an oscillating electrostatic field around the skin. When touching a physical object, such as a tablet screen, that shares a common electrical ground with the REVEL signal generator, an electrostatic force modulates the friction between the sliding finger and the object to create the sensation of a texture.
Fortunately, REVEL's body-wide electrical signal can be generated without attaching electrodes to your nipples. Looks like users can be electrified through everything from tablet casings to their own shoes. Any surface that can carry an electrical signal can be used as a textural canvas, as well.
Because REVEL changes the user's perception, it seems to be quite flexible. According to Disney researcher Ivan Poupyrev, "the sensations at this point are carefully designed and range from feeling virtual pebbles, to fine textures, such as sand, to glassy or rubbery materials, to larger spatial geometrical patterns such as grooves, bumps." He says more work needs to be done to simulate "really rich tactile sensations," but it could be a while before the technology leaves the lab. One analyst quoted by Technology Review says REVEL is "at least a decade" away from making its way into commercial products.