It's something you might have expected Apple or Samsung to be the first with, but remember that Disney developed the first animated feature film and the multiplane camera. The company is not unfamiliar with advancing technology.
How does it work? The basic premise is that "small, electronic pulses can trick your fingers into perceiving bumps and texture, even if the surface is actually flat."
In a more precise though definitely confusing for the layperson explanation, Disney said:
In this project, we develop and apply a tactile rendering algorithm to simulate rich 3D geometric features (such as bumps, ridges, edges, protrusions, texture etc.) on touch screen surfaces. The underlying hypothesis is that when a finger slides on an object then minute surface variations are sensed by friction-sensitive mechanoreceptors in the skin. Thus, modulating the friction forces between the fingertip and the touch surface would create illusion of surface variations. We propose that the perception of a 3D "bump" is created when local gradients of the virtual bump are mapped to lateral friction forces.The embedded video, from Disney's Research Labs, shows the display in use.
To validate our approach, we used an electro-vibration based friction display to modulate the friction forces between the touch surface and the sliding finger. We first determined a psychophysical relationship between the voltage applied to the display and the subjective strength of friction forces, and then used this function to render friction forces directly proportional to the gradient (slope) of the surface being rendered. In a pair-wise comparison study, we showed that users are at least three times more likely to prefer the proposed slope-model than other commonly used models. Our algorithm is concise, light and easily applicable on static images and video streams.
The company will present its findings at a user interface symposium in Scotland this week. There are numerous uses for the technology that can be imagined. For example, a customer at an Internet retailer could "feel" a product through a device before purchasing. A topographic map might actually deliver the feel of hills and valleys to an end user.
Of course, and as noted in the comments of the story, there could also be many prurient uses for the technology. We leave that to the mind of the reader.
Far more useful than either of those examples, though, could be the use of the technology for blind or disabled users.
Ivan Poupyrev, who directs Disney Research's Pittsburgh Interaction Group, said:
Touch interaction has become the standard for smartphones, tablets and even desktop computers, so designing algorithms that can convert the visual content into believable tactile sensations has immense potential for enriching the user experience. We believe our algorithm will make it possible to render rich tactile information over visual content and that this will lead to new applications for tactile displays.This is, of course, still a research project. It could be years before any tablets or smartphones with tactile feedback of this nature hit the market.