FEATURE: The iPhone isn't touchy-feely enough

The iPhone isn't touchy-feely enough
By Brian Dolan

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the iPhone is its lack of tactile feedback, according to Immersion's Director of Mobility Product Management Tim Vetter. The most heralded iPhone competitor, LG's Prada phone, however, makes use of Immersion's tactile technology, VibeTonz, which Vetter claims puts it one step ahead of the iPhone's much-hyped user interface.

To date, Immersion's bread and butter has been rumble packs for console game controllers, which add another immersive element to gaming by imitating, for example, the vibrations of a race car's engine. Immersion is now taking what it has learned from console gaming and porting it to mobile games, mobile user interfaces, mobile messaging and other applications.

Instead of sending a rich text message with an emoticon and the message "I love you" to one's significant other, VibeTonz allows next-gen messaging services to accentuate the message with a vibration that simulates a beating heart. Vetter points out that mobile gaming particularly benefits from the addition of tactile feedback because the mobile phone's screen size, speaker output and cramped keyboard can make for a diminutive experience. The sense of touch can never be "small."

Critics of tactile feedback and the pervasive use of vibrations to complement mobile content point to the potential toll such features could have on battery life. Vetter, however, says VibeTonz effects are short-lived and subtle enough that a typical use case for UI, gaming and ringtone augmentation only results in a 2 percent to 3 percent drain on battery life. Also, Immersion's internal tests show that five years of continual use of the VibeTonz system does not cause a lot of problems to handsets' hardware.

BREW developers who wish to target applications toward Samsung phones or the Prada phone, which have the VibeTonz hardware installed, can download a dynamic extension that lets them make calls into the VibeTonz system, and leverage the features to create unique interplays between tactile feedback and their offering.

"As the world becomes more virtual," Vetter says "it becomes more important to add touch back into it, and that's what we're doing."