Something to touch: Haptic feedback rumor gains traction for iPad "magic" feature

It’s always something at the last minute. Yesterday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper stoked the iPad rumor fires with a nuclear blowtorch by pairing the verbiage of Apple’s event invitation — “We have something you really have to see. And touch.” — with the work of a Finnish technology company called Senseg. A similar speculation hit over at The Next Web, and a MacRumors forum member outlined the argument last week.

Senseg’s patented screen technology creates a layer of “tixels,” texture pixels that allow developers to control the feel of the screen; smooth to rough, slippery to sticky. The company’s tech leads did a demo for the Guardian in January, where the reporter was able to identify on-screen textures (sandpaper, cloth, ridged surface) with eyes closed.

Senseg’s been fairly close-mouthed about any relationship with Apple when asked about it over the past few months, but that hasn’t always been the case. Back in June of 2011 VP Ville Mäkinen let slip that Senseg was “currently working with a certain tablet maker based in Cupertino.” Oh really.

GigaOM pointed out this Cnet video demo of the Senseg technology (from November 2011), which of course appears just as if Rafe Needleman is using an ordinary tablet. The real innovation of Senseg’s system is that unlike other haptics approaches, the screen uses electrostatic attraction to modulate the friction between finger and surface. No moving parts and “just works” simplicity — sounds pretty Apple-esque.

While Senseg executives have wisely delivered no comment on the upcoming Apple event, the notion of a sensable screen for the iPad aligns awfully neatly with Apple’s collection of patents covering haptic interface elements like keyboards. Unlike some other Apple innovations that don’t necessarily align immediately with users’ needs, there’s no question about this one: giving tactile feedback to iPad typists would provide a real-world benefit right away. And don’t even get us started on what haptics would mean for game developers.

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