First, we could recreate images, then sounds and now it has come to the sense of touch. A project of Disney Research (disneyresearch.com) has presented a system that produces artificial tactile impressions in the user’s physical world. Called “Revel”, the device allows the wearer to perceive that glass feel like rubber, skin feels like gloves or a wall feel like bark.
The Revel technology utilizes what’s called “reverse electrovibration” (hence the rev-el name), which works by sending an electric signal to the wearer’s body to create an oscillating electromagnetic field. When the wearer touches another object with a matching electrical ground, another signal causes the electrostatic force between them to create a sense of texture, shape, and resistance.
While the most obvious applications might lie in touchscreens and new immersive experiences, there are also other purely practical applications. Forgotten passwords are currently an unfortunate fact of life. By embedding the Revel technology into ATM machines and computers, the interface could generate tactile password hints that are unique to that particular person. With the electromagnetic fields in place, a person could simply touch a display screen and feel the numbers that are hidden to everyone else. Another application is to modify packaging to change its feel based on the time of day, expiration date, or the weather. A box for a doll with the Revel system integrated could contain the shape outline of the toy on the outside, allowing for direct experience without potential for damage, and the toy itself could take on the contours of the desired shape.
Practicality aside, this stunning research can actually change the way we perceive the world. Psychology studies on embodied cognition shows that the physical perceptions of the body directly influence our thoughts and ideas. In one Yale study, individuals holding a hot cup of coffee perceived their conversation partners to be more trustworthy than did those holding a cold cup. In a different study, squeezing a soft ball made subjects perceive a gender neutral face as female, while squeezing a hard ball made them think that the face was male. Most intriguingly, sitting in a hard chair has been experimentally shown to make people negotiate harder compared to when they sit in soft chairs.
By changing the feel of everyday things, Revel could literally make for a warmer and fuzzier world.