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TanvasTouch replicates the feel of fabric, guitar strings, and other objects

Touchscreens are one of the most versatile inputs in all of computing. They can act as buttons, joysticks, strings on a guitar, or even digital car dashboards. But in terms of tactility, they’re limited by the constraints of glass. Touchscreens, as anyone who’s used a smartphone or tablet will tell you, feel uniformly flat — there isn’t a palpable difference between a digital zipper and virtual piece of fabric. But one company, Tanvas, wants to change that paradigm for good.

The startup’s TanvasTouch technology, a product of the Neuroscience and Robotics Lab at Northwestern University, is the fruit of more than 10 years of intensive research. To achieve the effect of tactility, it employs what Tanvas calls “real-time control of the electrical forces between your fingertip and the touch surfaces.” That’s a lot of jargon, but put simply, the TanvasTouch — a layer between a device’s touchscreen and your fingers — acts like an electromagnet for skin, physically pulling at the tips of your fingers as they move across the screen. The result is a palpable, dynamic “sense” of touch that vibration-based feedback like Apple’s 3D Touch doesn’t come close to replicating.

“Touchscreens are more integrated into our lives than ever, and yet we are still tapping away at lifelike glass,” Tanvas CEO Greg Topel said in a press release. “TanvasTouch adds a new dimension of interaction.”

Tanvas demonstrated a TanvasTouch prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. One compatible app, a draggable coat zipper, produced a sensation akin to tingling as the animated zipper moved up and down its digital teeth. Another app served up a gallery of different textures (“grainy,” “choppy,” “fine,” and “wavy”). And yet another app, a virtual guitar, produced a tangible twang each time a finger strummed across the strings.

TanvasTouch is adaptable to virtually any touchscreen smartphone or tablet, a company spokesperson said, but it sees some of the biggest potential in retail. It has recruited apparel company Bonobos to develop apps that let customers “feel” pants and shirts before they buy them — a mock-up app on display showed two fabric textures, one cotton and one corduroy. And it’s brought on NTN Buzztime, the manufacturer behind many of the tablets in restaurants and airports, on board to engineer new “experiences” that take advantage of the tech.

There’s a therapeutic use case, too. TanvasTouch has retained the services of Dr. Patrick Degenaar, a reader in neuroprothesis at Newcastle University, to study the technology’s applicability to treating and assisting those with visual impairments.

Tanvas isn’t without limitations, though. The current generation of TanvasTouch can’t provide feedback for stationary on-screen elements like buttons — it requires finger movement. (The team is already working on an improved model without that problem.) And it has yet to find a hardware partner willing to manufacture TanvasTouch-equipped devices en mass.

But it’s early days.

“Our goal at CES is to provide a glimpse of what’s possible and, like our first-mover partners, inspire a new wave of creative innovators to build TanvasTouch into their products and applications,” Topel said.