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Texture simulating touch screens may be only months away

This illustratrion depicts how Senseg's virtual touch technology allows a user to "feel" images on a touch screen


It's the time of year when gamers and gear hounds begin looking forward to technological innovations that may come over the next 12 months. In the touch screen space, one of the biggest may arrive in the form of a new technology that allows perople to actually feel the virtual objects they see on their displays.

Developed and patented by Finnish-based Senseg, so-called virtual texture technology does away with traditional mechanical haptic feedback – those bee-like vibrations and deeper rumbles to which we've grown accustomed in tablets, phones, and game controllers – and replaces it with an electrostratic field that creates an attractive force between human tissue and the display's surface.

In simpler terms, it alters friction to simulate the feel of different objects. Users will be able to tell the difference between silk and sandpaper by touch alone. They'll also be able to feel elastic-y tension building as they pull back a slingshot, or glassy resistance as they move their fingers through a jumble of virtual marbles.

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The applications for this technology in the world of games are limited only by developers' imaginations. Players might slide their fingers across dungeon floors feeling for buried treasure. It could be used to enhance our appreciation of in-game objects, ranging from clothing in a fashion game to bladed weapons in a fighting game. I can even imagine it being employed to allow blind players to effectively interact with sliding block and tile puzzles.

Of course, the tech has potential beyond games. E-reading apps might allow users to feel paper edges while flipping pages. It could be deployed in a music app like Apple's GarageBand to let users feel minute crevices between keys or the tension of a guitar string. Pictures could be altered to allow viewers to experience tactile sensations when running their fingers over different subjects.

The key, of course, is getting device manufacturers to integrate virtual texture technology in their machines.

Senseg has expressed confidence that we could see it in mainstream consumer devices – tablets and phones, presumably – as early as next year. And high profile appearances in media, including an explanatory CNET video and a spot in Time Magazine's recent list of " The 50 Best Inventions," have given it some momentum.

That said, Senseg has yet to list its partners, so there's no telling which manufacturers are on board. And while the technology is described as an "ultra-thin durable coating on the touch interface," there's no word yet on whether it will negatively impact screen durability or visibility. Consumers can be sensitive to even small degradations in these areas.

However, assuming it works as well as Senseg describes and that the software development community gets behind it, virtual texture technology could end up being one of the bigger tech stories of 2012. And, as with many new technologies, its impact will likely be felt first in the world of games.

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