Auto touch-screens that touch back

January 20, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The proliferation of LCD screens on automobile dashboards has created a problem. Drivers can no longer feel the buttons. You must take your eyes off the road to point to something on the screen.

The modern electronic car is a feast for the senses. Colorful screens for the eyes, surround sound for the ears, and, of course, that new car smell. But the one sense that's missing is touch. The new touch screens don't touch back.

"And a problem you have is," according to Stanford Engineering Design Professor Mark Cutkosky, "in order to use those functions, you have to look at the screen. Which makes you have to take your eyes off the road. This is different from the old cars, where you just had knobs that you could feel -- how to turn them, and so on."

That concerns auto manufacturers. One of them, Daimler Chrysler, funded a research project at Stanford University. In it, Professor Cutkosky's team recorded real drivers in action and then developed one of the first haptic interfaces. Haptics is the field of touch -- beyond force feedback -- as a way for humans to interact with machines.

For example, when I press on what appears to be an ordinary LCD, my finger feels a firm vibration, assuring me that I've hit the correct arrow button. It is one of the first commercial applications to come out of the research labs.

The technology has gotten sophisticated enough to simulate the feel of a multitude of the first consumer devices to reach out and touch you back were videogames, and some cell phones.

You can make your buttons feel like wood or silk, or rubber. These touch-back screens are designed by SMK, the largest seller of TV and other remotes for consumer electronics. They're even putting it into household controls. The next time you and I zap channels, the TV can zap us back.

The company won't say which automaker will be the first to use its technology, but you can expect panels like these in the next model year.

More information:

Mark Cutkosky, Prof. Mechanical Engineering
Center for Design Research
Stanford University
424 Panama Mall
Stanford, CA 94305-2232

Stanford Engineering Haptics & Robotic Haptics
Current research looks into applications for rehabilitation and therapy, in addition to machine control.