IBM 5 in 5 2012: Touch

You will be able to touch through your phone.

Editor’s note: This 2012 IBM 5-in-5 article is by Robyn Schwartz, associate director of IBM Research Retail Analytics, and Dhandapani Shanmugam, solutions architect and Siddique A. Mohammed, software architect of IBM Software Group Industry Solutions.

Within the next five years, your mobile device will let you touch what you’re shopping for online. It will distinguish fabrics, textures, and weaves so that you can feel a sweater, jacket, or upholstery – right through the screen.

Shopping moves to mobile

In the U.S., online sales for Thanksgiving and Black Friday were up almost 20% from the same two days in 2011, according to data from IBM Smarter Commerce.

Haptic devices such as gloves or “rumble packs” used in gaming have existed for years. But we use them in closed environments where the touch doesn’t actually connect to where we are in reality. We at IBM Research think that in the next five years that our mobile devices will bring together virtual and real world experiences to not just shop, but feel the surface of produce, and get feedback on data such as freshness or quality.

It’s already possible to recreate a sense of texture through vibration. But those vibrations haven’t been translated into a lexicon, or dictionary of textures that match the physical experience. By matching variable-frequency patterns of vibration to physical objects so, that when a shopper touches what the webpage says is a silk shirt, the screen will emit vibrations that match what our skin mentally translates to the feel of silk.

Vibrating air to feel like something solid

Using digital image processing and digital image correlation, we can capture texture qualities in a Product Information Management (PIM) system to act as that dictionary. Retailers could then use it to match textures with their products and their products’ data – sizes, ingredients, dimensions, cost, and any other information the customer might expect. The dictionary of texture will also grow and evolve as we grow our appetite, usage and understanding of this kind of technology.

We’re not ready to virtually high-five Tupac Shakur’s hologram through a phone – yet. Soon though, the phone will be able to emit a field of vibrations. Just millimeters from the screen. And the vibrations will be subtle. Your phone won’t shake out of your hand, but will deliver a recognizable sensation. Imagine shopping for a wedding dress on a phone or tablet, and being able to feel the satin gown, or even the intricate beading and buttons, or the lace on the veil.  

Beyond the clothing rack

Starting in retail makes sense because we all intrinsically understand the browsing and shopping experience. We all naturally respond to and understand texture, from a soft pair of socks to a ripe piece of fruit.

The touch of something translated, based on accumulated data in a database down to an end user’s mobile device could also have the power to help us gain new understandings of our environment. Take farming, for example. Farmers could use a mobile device to determine the health of their crop by comparing what they’re growing to a dictionary of healthy options that they feels through a tablet.

The technology could evolve beyond communicating textures retrieved from some database, and toward real time touch translation gained from accumulated user interaction with the technology. What is one of the first things a doctor does when treating an injured patient? Touch the injury. The patient could send a photo of an injury to let the doctor feel the injury remotely to help make a faster diagnosis – before or perhaps instead of visiting the doctor in person. 

Five years may not seem like enough time to begin feeling what you shop for through your smart phone. But look at how far the smart phone has come. You can see the people you talk to via a camera. You can remotely adjust your home’s thermostat, or set your home alarm system; pay your babysitter; find your way to a local pizza restaurant; and watch a movie. Why can’t it also help you stay in “touch” with your environment?

If you think cognitive systems will most-likely have the ability to touch, before augmenting the other senses, vote for it, here.

IBM thinks these cognitive systems will connect to all of our other senses. You can read more about sight, smell, hearing, and taste technology in this year’s IBM 5 in 5.


  1. There is discussion of a "dictionary" of textures, but to be useful, a shopper wants to touch the actual object for sale. I want to feel the exact thread count of a cotton sheet, not the texture assigned by the Web designer by the retailer. Same with vegetables. I want to know that the particular peach is ripe not assumed ripe by the retailer. Interesting challenges to make touch really useful!