Disney Research, responsible for futuristic feedback systems like an earlobe speaker and a touch sensor that can work on water, is working on a new way to let people feel what's on their screens. The group will soon release a paper describing how to turn geometric figures on a touchscreen into simulated textures that users can run their hands across. In a demo video, researchers describe using it to feel the ridges on a map or examine objects that are behind glass. If the examples are any indication, you can do anything from "touch" an apple on a tablet to feel a jellyfish float across your screen.

Disney is following years of work on haptic feedback here. Our sense of touch is partly a function of friction-detecting receptors, and previous research has shown that by manipulating those receptors, you can trick the brain into feeling texture on a flat surface. Disney's touchscreen uses a display that can generate electrostatic force at varying voltages, creating a weak field that simulates different levels of friction. If that technology sounds familiar, it may be because it's also used by Senseg, which created a prototype haptic tablet two years ago. Disney Research is also no stranger to the idea; in 2010, a haptic touchscreen was demoed under the name "TeslaTouch."

But being able to simulate textures isn't the whole story. The team's algorithm, which maps a certain level of voltage to a bump or ridge on an object, works in real time, which means you aren't just feeling a set of pre-rendered objects on a screen. Kinect depth data or image analysis can, in theory, let users feel just about anything they look at, including objects seen through a tablet camera, 3D models, and live video streams. "The traditional approach to tactile feedback is to have a library of canned effects that are played back whenever a particular interaction occurs," says research head Ali Israr in a press release. "With our algorithm we do not have one or two effects, but a set of controls that make it possible to tune tactile effects to a specific visual artifact on the fly."

A more detailed explanation of the tech is available at Disney's site, but the full research paper, presented at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, hasn't been posted yet. Without feeling it ourselves, it's also hard to tell how realistic the sensation actually is. Like much of Disney Research's work, there's no sign that this will be integrated into commercial products any time soon, though Disney mentions the obvious help that a texture-producing touchscreen could be to people with poor or no vision. For now, continuing progress on the project is a good sign, and Disney says its algorithm could theoretically be applied by anyone who's developing a screen with haptic feedback.