IBM: You'll be able to 'feel' through your smartphone in five years

Smartphones will be able to ‘touch’ materials through their handset within five years, IBM has predicted.

Researchers at Big Blue are already developing applications for retail, healthcare and other areas using a variety of sensors to give tactile feedback through a touchscreen, simulating the feel of materials.

In the company’s set of five annual predictions, IBM is claiming that within five years smartphones will see advances that heighten the sensory ability of handsets to see, hear, taste and smell, as well as simulating touch.

With regards to touch, it is claimed that smartphones will be able to replicate the feel of a material using haptic, infrared and pressure sensitive technologies as a phone user brushes their finger over a material onscreen.  

Haptic feedback is already used in the gaming industry, providing feedback in accordance with on screen action. With smartphones this could be applied to a handset’s vibration capabilities, producing a unique vibration that is, the scientists claim, able to replicate the feel of materials, differentiating between silk, linen and cotton, for example.

One aspect of the advances necessary to enable tactile feedback is to build up a ‘language’ of vibrations relating to materials. IBM says that using digital image processing and image correlation, it will be possible to access a lexicon of data on texture qualities, allowing a phone user to automatically upload the ‘feel’ of an object through a picture.

As well as allowing designers and fashionistas to touch materials in different parts of the world, or shoppers to feel a wicker basket on the other side of the planet, this could enable farmers to determine the health of a crop by comparing it to a database of healthy crops. This could also mean improvements to tactile feedback on touchscreen keyboards.

In future the technology could even be used to send a doctor a picture of an injury, allowing them to feel and detect any damage that has been caused as a result of an injury.

Although some applications may err towards sounding like science fiction at the moment, IBM points out the advances that have been in the previous five years with smartphone technology, and the multitude of applications that are already possible.

Bernie Meyerson, IBM Fellow and VP of Innovation said that advances in the ability to replicate or detect touch, sound, sight, taste and smell  will increase the ability of technology to make sense of the world around us. 

“Just as the human brain relies on interacting with the world using multiple senses, by bringing combinations of these breakthroughs together, cognitive systems will bring even greater value and insights, helping us solve some of the most complicated challenges,” Meyerson said.