Phones that let you feel the world
An electronics firm is looking to use plastics to function just like muscles in today's mobile phones.
A few companies want to replace the crude vibration motors in current phones and tablets with something that provides a much wider range of sensations, allowing you to feel the rumble of a Harley motorcycle or the reverberation of a shotgun blast. The new technology can even let you feel the outlines of a button on the screen.
At the International Consumer Electronics Show, the gigantic gadget conclave in Las Vegas this week, a company called Artificial Muscle demonstrated how it can make mobile devices shake and rattle with great realism, employing a technology that uses plastics that function like muscles.
The company showed off an iPhone it had modified by placing one of its Vivitouch "motors" inside. The phone shook as it ran a simple ball-rolling game. The plastic muscle provided the feeling not just of the ball hitting the walls of a maze, but of the slight vibration it made while rolling freely across the floor.
When it was used for typing, the phone gave a buzzing sensation that confirmed each press of the virtual keys.
In another demonstration, a Vivitouch motor shook a modified Xbox controller to allow the user to feel what it is like to hold a beating heart. In another instance, it let the user experience the signature rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle starting up.
The vibration engines that go into today's phones and game controllers consist of an electric motor that spins a metal weight. They take time to start up and are effective at only one frequency. That means they are unable to provide varying sensations. It's pretty much the same rumble or buzz every time.
With Vivitouch motors, users will have "high-definition feel," says Dirk Schapeter, CEO of Artificial Muscle. The company is owned by German chemical giant Bayer AG and is a spinoff from Stanford Research Institute.
Artificial Muscle's motors contain strips of "muscle". When an electric charge is applied over the strips, they expand and contract at a frequency that can be precisely controlled. The first product to use Vivitouch came out in September - the Mophie Pulse, a sleeve for the iPod Touch that's intended to make games more lifelike.
The next step for the company is to get the motor built into phones. Schapeter says there will be a couple of those on the market this year, from companies he wouldn't identify. He did not say how much the Vivitouch would cost.