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Speaker Interview - NewHaptics

NewHaptics Shares Insights into Microfluidics, Human Perception, and Improving Quality of Life

As co-founder of NewHaptics, a company dedicated to increasing the literacy and independence of blind people around the world by delivering low-cost refreshable braille and tactile display products - his research focuses on using microfluidics to enable the large-scale integration of small pressure-based actuators suitable for tactile displays.

Your presentation will discuss your company’s goal to revolutionize digital interaction for the blind, as well as technological changes you are working to overcome. What are some of the key takeaways?

The audience will come away with a better understanding of how a commercially viable full-page tactile display would revolutionize digital interaction for the blind. The audience will also understand the technical challenges associated with building a full-page tactile display and what NewHaptics is doing to address those challenges with its novel microfluidic technology.

What are some of the benefits of using microfluidics as a means of creating a tactile display?

The use of microfluidics avoids the bottlenecks that have stalled prior attempts at realizing a full-page braille or tactile graphics display. These prior bottlenecks include the manufacture and assembly of relatively large actuators (piezo bimorph beams) together with many small parts to address and control the motion of individual dots. Our microfluidic-based display is instead comprised of bonded layers of soft silicone in which many actuators are batch manufactured in a single step. Importantly, the technology is very economical at scale.

A more advanced refreshable braille display would unquestionably change many people’s lives for the better. What are some of the other ways in which you think haptic technology can improve quality of life?

There’s a somewhat famous software company in Ann Arbor called Menlo Innovations whose core mission is to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” I’ve always loved this idea and certainly, with respect to software, most people can relate to this mission. Everyone at some point has come across a clunky piece of software or a website that made the user experience unbearable. I like to think that this mission should also extend into the hardware space as well – the physical interfaces through which users are interacting with the software. I believe haptic technology will be the key to helping to “end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology” through delivering more natural and intuitive interfaces. As virtual and augmented reality systems continue to improve, I believe haptic technology will be essential for delivering new interfaces that keep human suffering as it relates to technology to a minimum.

What potential is there for haptic technology to affect human perception, changing the ways in which we interact with our world?

I’m going to answer this question in the context of haptic technology for the blind, specifically with respect to shape displays that electronically raise and lower physical features on a surface. The availability of a large-area refreshable display of this kind would lead to a paradigm shift in blind computer user interaction. For sighted computer users, the movement from command-line interaction to “Direct Manipulation Interfaces” (think: point-and-click and icons) revolutionized digital interaction. Without commercially available technology to convey tactile spatial information, blind people are not able to benefit from such advances. A large-area refreshable tactile display would enable touch-mediated interaction with digital information akin to interaction with modern visual user interfaces. In brief, increased access to tactile information provided by our technology will open up entirely new modes of interaction with the digital world for blind individuals.

When thinking about the future of haptics, what are you most excited to see?

As I touched on earlier, I’m most excited to see how haptics can help deliver next-generation human-computer interfaces that further reduce human suffering related to technology. Virtual and augmented reality interfaces require entirely new methods of interaction beyond the keyboard and mouse (and trackpad, too). I’m excited to see how haptics will deliver more natural interfaces. I imagine we will look back on the age of the keyboard and mouse – as we do with all technological developments, I guess – and wonder what it was like to have such a narrow, constrained window into the digital world.

What are you looking forward to at this year’s Smart Haptics conference?

I’m looking forward to hearing what other haptics-centric companies are up to and what industry leaders believe to be the big opportunities in the near and distant future. I’m especially looking forward to networking and learning how the companies at the conference can collaborate and support one another.

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