You think the iPad’s touchscreen is magical? Wait till you try this B.C.-born technology

Touchscreen’s have come a long way. The iPad is a shining example of today’s finest. But tomorrow’s finest may be in the hands of B.C., where over at the University of British Columbia and the Northwestern University, some of the most realistic touchscreen experiences are in beta.

A prototype of the technology was recently demonstrated at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, where UBC scientist Vincent Lévesque and his colleagues showed off the product: a screen using high-frequency vibrations to create a thin layer of air between the glass and the user’s finger, where adjustments to the vibration can create a noticeable difference between what feels like either a slick or a sticky screen.

Quoth Technology Review:

“It adds a feeling of realism,” says Vincent Lévesque, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It’s more physical. It feels like there are real buttons that actually exist.”

The screen is one of a number of new devices that offer complex tactile feedback. Some mobile phones on the market, for example, use vibrations to generate a click or some other tactile signal. But the new device, called a tactile pattern display (T-PaD), is meant to do more than just buzz or click, says Ed Colgate, a mechanical engineer at Northwestern University whose team developed the touch screen.

“We’re not just about giving signals,” he says. “We’re about giving physical sensations like the experience you have when you interact with the real world.”

The T-PaD uses piezoelectric discs positioned against a glass plate. When a current is run through the discs, they vibrate at 26 kilohertz and transmit the vibrations to the glass. Lasers track the motion of a user’s finger and vary the vibrations accordingly.

Vincent and his crew presented a paper that suggested these improvements not only add distinct realism, but enhanced productivity too—although some users said their fingers fatigued more quickly than with standard touchscreens.

Vincent calls the technology “magic,” a word thrown around a lot lately when it comes to touch technology (read: Apple). Magic’s fun and all, but I’d label this science.