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The future 5, Part 1: Touch

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In the next five years, computers will begin to mimic and augment the senses. Through this week, IBM outlines five upcoming advances that will change our world. In Part 1, we explore the future of Touch.

In the future we will use technology to make touch come to life on our mobile devices and bring together virtual and real world experiences for a whole host of applications, most immediately online shopping.

At the core of this vision is the use of haptic, infrared or pressure sensor technologies. Today these technologies recreate a sense of touch through vibration and are used on mobile devices and gaming consoles, enabling a player to experience a collision in a car race, or the sensation of driving over a rough surface. Haptic feedback simulates the feeling of touch using a set of variable-frequency patterns of vibration that are triggered by a certain event or when the user touches the screen.

In support of retail, by creating a lexicon, or dictionary of textures, we can experientially match the physical texture of a product presented in an online shopping experience. These textures could be stored in a product information database and could be supplied by the manufacturer, or the retailer, or even from customers. By matching variable-frequency patterns of vibration to physical objects when a shopper touches an online image of a silk shirt, the screen of their personal device will emit a vibration sequence that matches what our brain would mentally translate to the feel of a soft easy flowing silk.

In the future when you want to buy a sweater online you will be able to stroke the surface of your phone to experience the texture, the fabric, the weight, the weave, and how it might wear on you.

Much of current technology is a diversion, rather than an immersive experience. Sometimes, people use their mobile technology to remove their consciousness from their present awareness. Current uses of haptic and graphic technology in the gaming industry take the end user into a simulated environment. The opportunity and challenge here is to make the technology so ubiquitous and inter-woven into the everyday experience that it brings greater context to our lives by weaving technology in front and around us. This innovation will enable technology devices like the phone to become more than just a handset but a tool that enables a more natural and intuitive interaction with our environment.

Over time as cognitive systems learn more textures through accumulated experiences they will eventually be able to simulate texture through integration and alignment of gained correlation between visual image and vibrational output. For example, a doctor may be able to touch the wound on a remote patient with this technology to help make a faster diagnosis. A farmer could use their mobile device to determine the health of their crop by using touch to know when foods are ready for harvest.

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