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Sitting in a coffee shop in Mountain View, Calif., Mike Levin unlocks a large, hardened carrying case that looks like a prop from a Mission: Impossible movie. He opens it and reveals...not the antidote to a supervirus, but a pile of computer screens, mouse pads, and other parts. He fishes out a keyboard. It's paper-thin and almost completely flat. Then he connects the keyboard to a laptop, and the amazement begins. Instead of using actual keys, this keyboard has stationary, printed-on tiles that only feel as if they go up and down. "It's that feel of a switch going on and off that most people are looking for," he says.
Engineers have a word for what Levin is describing: haptics, or technology that adds tactile sensations to gadgetry. It's been around a while. Think of vibrate mode on a cell phone, or videogame controllers rumbling when a linebacker blindsides a quarterback. Levin is the chief sales and marketing officer of Pacinian of Spokane, Wash., one of many haptics startups to appear in recent years. In the near future, these companies plan to give smartphones and tablets new powers. Imagine videogame guns that deliver a kick to your hand when fired, just like the real thing; virtual guitars with strings that feel real; buttons and knobs that actually grow out of touchscreens.
A Helsinki-based startup named Senseg is developing technology that will let users feel textures on the screen. During a demonstration, the textures were discernible but faint. Senseg executives say that future versions will let people shopping online actually sense the ridges of corduroy pants or the soft feel of a flannel shirt.
The most mind-blowing brand of haptics may come from a Silicon Valley startup called Tactus Technology. In a pair of patent applications, the company's executives describe a touchscreen display capable of growing a keyboard out of its surface. Seriously. You go to type an e-mail, and a keyboard rises up slightly out of the display, allowing your fingers to feel the edges of the letters, numbers, and symbols. When you're done, the keyboard recedes back into the surface. To play a game, controller knobs and buttons emerge.