The Future of Communication: Haptic Technologies

This is the sixth post in a series about technologies that are shaping the future of communication. We’ve been following technologies that cover an interesting array of possibilities, from enhancing existing communication modes to replacing at least one of the humans in a conversation to assisting people who have a variety of motor, vision, and cognitive impairments. They are all across the adoption curve, from technologies that are already approaching mainstream usage (such as bots and gamification) to a few that are closer to the sci-fi end of things (such as holograms and telepathic communication). Many of these systems rely on artificial intelligence, which is reshaping business communication in some profound ways. All of them present interesting discussion topics for business communication, because they get to the heart of matter, which is trying to exchange information and meaning in the most effective and efficient ways possible. To offer students a peek into the future, we've started covering these innovations in our business communication texts, beginning with the 14th Edition of Business Communication Today (published January 2017) and the 8th Edition of Business Communication Essentials (published January 2018).


As the most intimate form of communication, touch can convey shades of emotion and meaning in ways that other forms can’t match. Think of the range of messages you can send by the way you greet someone, for example. A firm handshake, a light kiss on the cheek, an awkward embrace, and a fist bump all send different nonverbal signals.

Touch is a vital aspect of human-to-human and human-to-machine interaction, but it is missing from most forms of digital communication. You can’t give someone a hearty handshake over email or feel the vibration patterns of a machine while viewing it over a video link.

However, the field of haptic technology is enabling touch and tactile sensations in a growing number of ways. Mobile devices and wearables such as smartwatches are incorporating haptic input and output in ways that simulate the nuances of human touch or offer sensory substitution—using haptic feedback to translate visual or auditory information into vibration and pressure. When combined with virtual reality, haptics can create simulations so realistic they are being used to train surgeons and nuclear power plant technicians.

Beyond training, the technology has exciting potential in such diverse areas as retailing, maintenance and repair in dangerous environments, and assistive technologies. Imagine being able to feel the texture of fabric from halfway around the world or letting an expert’s hands remotely guide yours as you learn a new procedure. The ability to manipulate objects and machines through simulated touch, rather than abstracted devices such as joysticks, offers more subtle control and feedback. Haptic navigation systems can provide directions via vibration actuators in shoes or other wearable devices. Biometric yoga pants guide users into proper form and motion, and with haptic metronomes, musicians can literally feel the beat, without the potentially disruptive sound of a conventional metronome.

As sensors and actuators get smaller, cheaper, and more flexible, we’re likely to see haptics integrated into an even wider array of products and systems.

Class activity idea: Have students research the current state of haptic technology to identify one way in which the technology has the potential to change business communication practices, such as replacing detailed verbal descriptions of products with touch-enabled virtual interaction. Do they agree with the predictions the experts make? Why or why not?


Sources: Gregory Mone, “Feeling Sounds, Hearing Sights,” Communications of the ACM, January 2018, 15–17; Wearable X website, accessed 31 January 2018,; Andrew Wade, “Revolution in Touch,” The Engineer, September 2017, 22–24; Roland Moore-Colyer, “Good Vibrations: What’s Next for Haptics in Wearable Tech?” Wareable, 22 August 2016,

Image: Photo on Visual Hunt