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Immersion HD Haptics hands-on: tactile touchscreens are just the beginning

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Immersion's trying to make haptics a must-have part of your mobile experience, and when we went hands-on with a piezoelectric version of the tech, we found it pretty impressive.

Immersion HD Haptics hands-on stock 1024
Immersion HD Haptics hands-on stock 1024

Unless you're the proud owner of a force feedback steering wheel or remember why the PlayStation 3's Sixaxis controller didn't have rumble on day one, you've probably never heard of Immersion Corporation — nor would you probably have cared. That's because despite shipping its haptic feedback software in over 400 million mobile devices, it doesn't really do a lot these days: the vibrator motors that come with most phones aren't good for much more than the occasional jolt.

All that could change with the right hardware, though, and that's what Immersion is banking on. Last year, the company showed us a proof of concept and an SDK, and today the firm is formally announcing its HD Haptics platform and an integration tool for OEMs to make it happen. Simply put, if device manufacturers integrate piezoelectric actuators (like the one in the Pantech Element) and software developers embrace the idea, future apps could have some pretty incredible localized tactile feedback.

We tried it out at the company's San Jose, California headquarters, and at least on the company's three retrofitted Nexus S smartphones, it's a far cry from anything we've tried before. To give you some idea, we shook a maraca where we could feel the impact of each individual bead against the insides of the phone, felt the effects of gravity on a bouncing rubber ball as we tilted it around, scrolled down a list of email where the phone identified starred items with a distinct buzz, and flipped through online photos in a gallery where a tactile sensation could clearly tell you which had more comments from your family and friends. See a few of these in the video below:

The key to the new effects is responsiveness, as while traditional vibrators usually take a moment to spin up, the piezo elements here work fast enough to feel like you're actually manipulating the objects you touch. The problem is that just like one year ago, adoption is chicken and egg. There's very little software to take advantage of haptics, and hardware hasn't taken off yet: According to the company, it's a $1-2 premium to add piezo actuators, and while several devices are in development for later this year, none of them will show up at Mobile World Congress next week. Both parts are needed to make haptic feedback a success.

Even so, Immersion has a plan. App developers don't have to wait for piezo, because the company's software can apply some of the effects to those sluggish vibrator motors right now, and there's a dedicated team pushing the tech to game developers as we speak. Grand Theft Auto III already supports it, and Immersion promises more "brand name" titles over the coming months. OEMs don't have to wait for software, either, because the HD Integrator tool lets them build their own, integrating haptic "gestures" into the Android UI wherever they choose. (Some restraint is needed, though, as we discovered in our Pantech Element review). Somewhat less impressively, the software can also generate feedback even when it's not specifically programmed to, by monitoring the audio in your music, movies, and games, generating vibrations for explosions, gunshots... and unfortunately plenty of other things where it doesn't make sense. The algorithms aren't quite there yet.

In short, the company's coming at the problem from all sides, and while VP of Marketing Dennis Sheehan admits there isn't a "killer app" for the tech, he's hoping that users will build mental models around the technology, as they did in focus groups.

"You take it away, and 'Oh crap, I really miss this," he says.