Beyond the Buzz

Why Haptics are the Future of Wearables

Catherine Jameson

Touch has long been neglected in technology development, but no longer. Find out why we believe haptics are the future of wearables.

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Haptics As Communication

The world of haptics is so much more nuanced than a vibration alerting you to a new text. With advances in technology and cognitive science, we are discovering new ways to interact with electronics through touch. Loft is at the forefront of this conversation, prioritizing wearables that deliver a direct benefit to users (often through haptic interventions) rather than just tracking data. Now a senior engineer at Loft, I have been involved with haptics since college - I presented my senior thesis on haptic trainers for doctors at the Haptics Symposium hosted by IEEE. I also worked on the tactile group at Fitbit, and I bring this passion for haptics to Loft’s engineering and research teams. 

But what are haptics? From a handshake with a new business partner to a hug from an old friend, touch is a primary, instinctive way we communicate as humans. When we say that we’re in touch with someone, we mean that we’re connected. Haptic technology is a way of communicating using humans’ sense of touch. As technology becomes more sophisticated, we’re able to connect with this sensitive skin interface to imbue digital experiences with rich and varied sensations. Like music in a movie, haptics can augment and even change emotional states (such as the rumbling in a videogame controller), or it can provide specific and detailed information such as the shape and texture of an object in VR.

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Wearables That Give, Not Take

In this time of increasing isolation due to COVID 19, when touch can be as dangerous as it is vital to our wellbeing, the connection between touch and emotions is clearer than ever. Advances in cognitive science show empirically that touch can influence how we feel. A new field in psychology called embodied cognition discusses how the brain and body influence each other. For instance, one study found that participants rated a stranger as more friendly when they held a cup of hot coffee, compared to those who held cold coffee. Examples abound - holding heavy objects makes us consider weighty topics more deeply, and the Macbeth effect describes our tendency to want to wash our hands after a moral transgression. Interestingly, many of these results correlate with common metaphors: “she’s a warm person,” “gave him the cold shoulder,” “heavy issues,” “clean conscience,” etc. 

As embodied cognition is a relatively new field, psychologists continue to debate, replicate, and assess these studies, but their implications for behavior have interesting implications for developing haptics products nonetheless. Through biofeedback and haptic interventions, new devices are attempting to offer emotional solutions through physical devices - also called affective haptics. One such device, Purrble, designed by Sproutel, is a toy that aims to help children learn to cope with stress and anxiety. Given the restrictions of COVID 19, families are struggling with tantrums as routines are turned on their heads. Purrble’s heart beats fast when it senses that kids are agitated. By learning to calm Purrble down, kids learn how to self-soothe and manage their own emotions.

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Using the Power of Touch

Technologies enabling rich haptic experiences are flourishing. Miniaturization of motors allows them to poke and prod ever more specifically, wearables that paint sensation on our skin. Even simple vibration motors, when controlled precisely, can offer surprising sensations. For example, Apple’s Force Touch technology uses a powerful Linear Resonant Actuator (a tiny motor) to kick back on your finger when you press the home button. There’s no literal button - the bottom of the phone is a solid panel with a circle indicating where to push, sensors measure the force applied by your finger, and the motor provides a precise force to create a haptic illusion of a click. 

Other technologies include piezo haptics (similar to a speaker, creating waves of energy that impact your skin), heaters and thermoelectric devices, and pneumatic force actuators. The breadth of technology available gives designers and engineers many tools in their haptic palette.

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Why Haptics are Game Changers in Women’s Health

At Loft, we focus on making innovative technology accessible and easy to use - and we love furthering technology that improves women’s lives. Haptic devices have the potential to radically improve women’s health and wellness. Brilliantly is one startup we work with that focuses on wellness after an experience with breast cancer. Many women who choose breast reconstruction after a mastectomy report feeling overwhelmingly cold, as the implants lack any blood flow and take heat away from the body. Brilliantly’s first product, developed with Loft, fits inside a bra and provides heat directly on the skin to help women feel warmer and more comfortable.

Embr Labs, another partner of Loft, has developed a heating and cooling wearable for comfort at the push of a button. It’s especially popular with women in menopause, who are better able to control hot flashes using Embr. Based on years of scientific research by their MIT-based team, their patented waveforms of temperature ensure that the sensation stays dynamic, keeping the senses active for consistent relief. This is a key example of using the properties of the brain and body to improve perception - because Embr knows how the thermal receptors in your skin react, they can tailor the waveform to optimize positive sensations. For someone in the beginning flushes of a hot flash, a quick sensation of cooling on their wrist can calm the rising heat, and in some cases, head it off completely.

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A New Frontier

These examples show how comfort and sensation can be critical to women’s wellbeing, addressing even medical issues with haptic interventions. These powerful examples are only the beginning. By creating a sense of control and a positive sensation, we can improve people’s daily experience.

At Loft, we use haptics to enhance an experience or deliver a critical intervention. As designers, it is important to go beyond the visual. In the words of Maya Angelou, “people will never forget how you made them feel.” We strive to make people feel better in their daily lives, and haptics offers a powerful tool to use in creating products that do just that.

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