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 Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 08:40 GMT
Mobiles get a sense of touch
Immersion's Jeffrey Eid
Immersion's Jeffrey Eid sends a virtual kiss vibration
Alfred Hermida

Within a year you could be able to "touch" someone over your mobile phone.

A US company called Immersion has adapted the sensory technology used in gamepads and joysticks to send physical sensations via a mobile.

"We're thinking in terms of virtual touch," Immersion's Jeffrey Eid told BBC News Online. "Today you can't really physically touch someone across the phone. With this technology you can."

The company has been talking to mobile manufacturers to build in touch into future phones.

Good vibrations

The system developed by Immersion is based on the force feedback technology commonly found in video game controllers.

We don't look at it as just a toy, it can do some things to enhance the interactivity of the phone itself

Jeffrey Eid, Immersion
The company has miniaturised the technology so that it fits inside a mobile.

The technology works by making the phone vibrate in a number of ways.

The vibration in today's mobiles is of a single strength and frequency. With Immersion's system, the strength and pitch of the vibrations can be controlled and varied.

"The vibration in mobile phones today all feels the same," explained Mr Eid. "It is like a single note on a piano."

"What we can do is play multiple notes or combine the notes to make them feel like chords."

Play time

The company has developed a prototype which it was demonstrating at the Consumer Electronics Show recently held in Las Vegas.

Mobile phone prototype developed by Immersion
The prototypes use gamepad technology
It showed how the technology could be used to bring games on mobiles to life. On a driving game, you could feel the engine vibrations, as well as the feeling of the car changing gears.

On a shooting game, the phone provided different sensations when you were firing and reloading.

"It delivers a much more compelling and fun experience," said Mr Eid, who is Vice-President of Consumer Markets at Immersion.

"But we don't look at it as just a toy; it can do some things to enhance the interactivity of the phone itself."

Say it with feeling

Immersion has developed what it calls vibe-tones which are similar to ringtones. But instead of a tune, the phone would play a range of vibrations which can be linked to a specific caller.

It has also produced a series of vibrations designed to express emotion, which could be sent with a text message.

A slap delivers a short, sharp buzz to the hand, while a high five is gentler and longer.

Immersion said the technology would add about a dollar to the cost of manufacturing a phone and could, in the future, be adapted for handheld computers.

Mr Eid was reluctant to say which phone manufacturers are interested, but said phones with touch technology could be in the shops within a year.

Would you buy a mobile with touch technology? This is what you had to say.

Pointless and stupid. Just another ploy to suck children into forcing their parents to buy them more and more expensive phones.
Daniel Gilbert, England

This could have amazing implications for the blind and partially-sighted. The technology could be adapted to give a vibration translation of text messages, perhaps using Morse code to represent the letters.
Chris, UK

I can see the attraction for games, but sending people vibrations? Only in the most kinky of circumstances can I imagine this being useful. Still, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, give me buzz.
Martin Randall, UK

For God's sake, a mobile phone is for talking to one another, not making it the centrepoint in everyone's life. There will soon be that many features on a mobile that you will be too busy using them to actually talk.
Ian, UK

I own a Logitech iFeel mouse, with the software Immersion made and I found it very good with playing games and for general use. I'm sure the mobile phone will be useful with it. Roll on with it!
Tony Sutton, Norwich, UK

I'm always keen to get all the latest gadgets and phones but even for me this is a novelty that I wouldn't pay any extra for, and would only use if it happened to be on a phone I would by anyway.
David, UK

This should be consigned to dustbin along other ridiculous ideas such as broadband fridge magnets.
Andy, UK

Mobile phones potentially could be used not just for talking but all forms of communication, at the moment sight and sound is all we have but touch could open up new areas of interaction/communication. We have lots of senses that, at the moment are not being utilised, just sight and sound, mobile phones could soon potentially be a lot more useful and efficient with these added tools.
NIck Broom, England

What a stupid idea! At this rate there will be no reason to interactive with people face to face. It will all be done via virtual mobile phones. Anyone that wants one of these should get a life
Michelle, UK

In a day, if you make 10 calls to 10 different people, how many of them do you think you would like to touch ? Nevertheless, the lovesick people will definitely buy this.
Sadat, Bangladesh

Do we normally vibrate when we communicate? No. I doubt many people will be willing pay to start communicating in such a ridiculous way. Where is my video messaging? I want to send short, ridiculous films to my friends.
Chris, England

Nice one Chris! To a majority of people the advances in communications technology seems to be primarily games or entertainments based, rather than to satisfy an existing need. A mobile communications package adapted to suit blind and other people who could benefit tremendously from such technology should be a primary, not a secondary concern.
Jai Gomer, Wales, UK

Has the world gone mad? Commuting in the South East is bad enough without the prospect of a carriage full of over stimulated office workers jumping and jingling all over the place as their phones deliver slaps and hugs. Yuk.
Caroline, UK

Whilst it might be nice to be able to reach out to touch a loved one, unless there is a way of blocking this facility, it would be extremely unpleasant to be subjected to the unsolicited touches of others.
Josephine, Uganda

I believe it's a smashing idea of exhibiting caress and affectionate feeling in addition to the amusement. Especially for people distant apart this technology will elevate perception of belonging and confidence.
Faisal Amir, Pakistan

So from now on you will be able to receive a text massage as well as a text message!
Paul Bennett, UK

Communication with friends is all about fun. This will add to the fun. Funny though, how it will add a dollar to the cost of manufacture but I bet it will add about 50 to the price of the phone.
Paul, UK

Another stupid idea to generate more money for phone companies. Of course the idea will appeal to kids who must have the latest gadget. They say it would be good for games, well I would never play a game on a tiny mobile phone. If you want to play a game, get a PlayStation 2 or Xbox
Pete, UK

Feel the vibes, man! I think this is an excellent idea for the sight and hearing impaired!
Ben, UK

I am 15 and I own a mobile and think that the new technology is a good idea. If there is technology which makes us communicate in a more effective way then I am all for it. Let's stay up to date and not get stuck in the past and not dismiss the new technology and give it a try!
Adam, UK

Excellent idea. Adding a personal touch is a creation in itself.
Stacy, England

I've never read such cynical comments! Why are people so afraid of change - I guess some of these comments are made by people who still think that a TV is simply radio with pictures. The world is changing and the mobile phone is more than something you use to talk to people - it's a games console, an entertainment channel, a social tool, a means of interacting with other media, a fashion icon, a payment enabler - like it or not but its too far assimilated into peoples lives for that to change!
Josh, UK

When the first GSM networks were built, text messaging was a last minute addition with many saying that nobody would use such a feature as phones are for talking. The idea of sending typed messages was scoffed at, and yet text services now make up a large chunk of mobile company revenues. Vibe-messages will very probably become very popular. People are suckers for toys and gadgets.
Pete, UK

Chris' comments about how useful this will be for blind/partially sighted people are all very well, but rather than tapping out a text message with Morse code, wouldn't it be a lot easier to have an old-fashioned phone conversation? Come on, let's stop over-complicating things!
Douglas, UK

Interesting to hear people's opinions on the usefulness of this for the hearing or vision impaired. Will a limited range of vibrating emoticons really allow people who haven't previously been able to use a mobile to carry out conversations with their friends? I suspect that this will only be used by fad-crazed schoolchildren and others of the type who currently engage in hour-long text conversations rather than talk into the phone.
Alan, UK

A phone is a phone. Why complicate matters. Other than for visually-impaired people, is there any real need for this feature on phones?
Waiman Mak, UK

My phone makes phone calls and sends text messages. Why would I need a new one?
Andrew Armitage, UK

I bet the majority of people who have left negative comments about this new technology are over 50. Not being horrible, but new technology comes out everyday, and the fact is mobiles are already the centrepoint of our everyday lives, even the older generation. I feel closer to my girlfriend when we're apart already, thanks to camera phones, so bring it on!
Rhys Adams, UK

Rhys don't give the over 50 crowd a bum rap. I'm 56 and find the thought of this new tech stimulating, looking at it as but the next step in communications. We will eventually have folks pioneering in space with long separations from loved ones. The closer we are able to share touch and other sensations with loved ones, the more we will be able to alleviate those long journeys with a sense of still belonging to the human race. I see further implications than just emotional, however. Perhaps future refinements will permit such things as touch-sensitive surgery, repairs of all types. I realise these things have already been done for years, but believe further development of this sensitivity will permit much broader applications.
Charlotte G., USA

Consumer Electronics Show 2003, Las Vegas

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See also:

14 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
25 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
12 Feb 02 | Entertainment
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