Future Smartphones Could Let Users ‘Feel’ Textures

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Julianna Frieman Contributor
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Smartphones may allow users to “feel” textures in the future.

Mobile devices with touchscreens rendering texture would allow users to feel the material of what they see on their screens, Axios reported Monday. For example, a customer would be able to feel the softness of a shirt in their online shopping cart, while someone looking at a photograph of a sand dune would be able to feel its roughness.

Engineers at Northwestern University developed touchscreens that allow users to feel the range of textures, according to the outlet. Michael Peshkin, a professor of engineering at the university, described the technological advancement as “a touchscreen that touches you back.”

“You should be able to feel when you are on your phone, feel things that you see — not [just] feel the whole device vibrate, the way you do now when you hit a key,” Peshkin told Axios.

“When you’re looking at something on your phone that you’d naturally touch if it were right in front of you — you’d strike your hand over it. You’d go like, ‘What does it feel like?’” he continued.

“You want to be able to feel that on glass too — and we can,” Peshkin said.

Tanvas, a company founded by Peshkin and Northwestern collaborator J. Edward Colgate in 2010, developed a tablet resembling Apple’s iPad that allowed users to feel smooth and unshaven skin. The touchscreen also let users feel corduroy fabric, sandpaper and striations on rocks, Axios reported. (RELATED: Apple CEO Cites Sustainability When Asked Why People Should Buy New IPhones Each Year)

“You could just stroke your hand across it and feel these different material properties, as well as grab a rotator ring — that kind of thing,” Peshkin said.

Tanvas’ tablet “couldn’t do warmth or softness,” Peshkin told Axios, such as the feeling of holding someone’s hand. Despite winning an award for its technology used in a Gillette advertising campaign at the 2018 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Tanvas shut down in 2023 after running out of money.

“It’s a little challenging whether it’s commercially worth it to integrate that into phones and screens,” Peshkin said.