Are you bored with 3D technology? Find yourself wanting to reach out and touch those floating images? Well, someday soon, you may be able to reach out to your smartphone or tablet and feel what you see on the screen.

Seung-Chan Kim, Ali Israr, and Ivan Poupyrev of Disney’s Research lab in Pittsburgh may have cracked the code on touchable 3D with a specially designed display that uses low-voltage electricity and vibration to increase the friction between a finger and the screen. This is based on the idea that when we touch an object, what we feel as a difference in elevation, surface material, and texture can all be explained by minute differences in friction. When we touch an object, it is just the electron fields within the molecules both in our hand and the object interact. And much like trying to push the positive poles of two magnets together, the electron fields also push against each other, creating the electric tug of war we call friction.

The Texture gradient used for a group of DVDs

By changing the frictional forces between a finger and a touch screen, one would be able to simulate the sensation of texture. But how do you change frictional forces? Disney Researchers took advantage of the way our skin detects differences. By inserting a super-low voltage current and a small and mostly undetectable vibration motor under the surface of the touch screen, they tested how the human brain detects small increases in the electric field. Then, they created 3D models to display on the screen, applied the data they gathered to determine where voltage or vibration should be increased or decreased, and created a program to combine the two.


While the video above demonstrates the technology, it’s tough to tell how well implemented the technology is. They did run focus testing and the results are promising, but I can only hope this moves past a prototype stage sometime soon. This technology is most exciting for the blind, as they have been consistently left behind by the popularization of visual touch interfaces and the lack of innovation for TTS (text to speech). With this technology, blind users would be able to read e-books, experience the information of the internet in more than just text, and maybe even touch the face of a loved one who is far away. That said, this can also inspire a much more interactive learning experience for everyone. This can even revolutionize 3D modeling, design and printing, by allowing one to mold and shape a figure like a piece of clay. In a world dominated by touch interfaces, a new way to interact with a touch screen that’s this innovative could change everything.

Source: Disney Innovation Labs

Mike Lohnash