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Immersion looks to shake up mobile videos with touch feedback

The company unveils TouchSense Engage, which uses touch feedback technology to simulate the roar of a crowd or the boom of an explosion.

Immersion is adding a layer of feeling to Homeland's ads. Showtime

Smartphones are quickly becoming the primary outlet for many viewers wanting to catch a clip on YouTube or a video stream on Netflix, but it's hard to pack a lot of excitement on a tiny screen.

With that in mind, Immersion -- a company that works to add more touch into the touch screen -- on Tuesday will introduce a layer of feeling to videos on your phone.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company created new software called TouchSense Engage that's meant to add rumbles, shakes and taps to TV shows and video advertisements playing on smartphones and tablets. The technology could help simulate the crack of a bat to a sports highlight clip or the blast of an explosion in an action movie.

The first place people can experience the technology are ads for Showtime's Homeland on the the cable network's mobile app, as well as in Homeland ads on Slate magazine's app. In both cases, the Immersion effects will only be available on mobile devices running Google's Android operating system. Showtime is owned by CBS Corp., parent company of CNET.

"I've been on the cutting edge of video on demand, high definition, bringing video to the Internet, and I view this as the next progression, which is bringing haptics -- the sense of touch -- to the video entertainment experience," said Jason Patton, Immersion's content and media vice president, who joined the company in January.

Immersion built up a business in smartphones and wearables with TouchSense. That software -- which is used in devices from LG, Samsung and Sharp -- utilizes a phone's internal motor to create different kinds of taps, also called haptics, along a touch screen that give users the sense that they are typing on a real keyboard or strumming a guitar.

Bringing that technology into mobile videos could be a big new market for the company and help haptics gain more notice with consumers. That technology is already used to shake video game controllers and to provide touch feedback on screens for many Android phones. The new Apple Watch, expected to hit stores next year, will also use haptics to tap a user on the wrist for alerts and notifications. Still, it's too early to tell whether people will want a new feature like TouchSense Engage that causes phones to buzz and vibrate even more than they do now.

Immersion has been talking about pushing into video for much of the year, saying they can increase consumers' interest in ads by using their technology. While audio in mobile ads can be bothersome, especially in crowded places, haptics is far less obtrusive.

"Maybe there will still be people that are annoyed by it, but you're not going to let everyone in the room know you just saw an ad," said Charles Anderson, an analyst with Dougherty & Co.

He said haptics will likely continue to proliferate with the growth of more touch screens in more places. If Immersion can prove haptics increases user engagement with ads, he said, it could be a significant benefit for the company and boost the adoption of the technology.

During a demonstration at CNET's New York office, Patton showed off a short video of a roller coaster from a first-person perspective on a Samsung Galaxy S4. As the coaster zigged and zagged on the screen, the phone would rumble along with it. He also played a trailer for the movie "Gravity" that was retrofit with TouchSense Engage, which whirred and shook the phone as the action escalated, giving the sense (in a small way) of the reverberations from the surround sound at the movies.

Patton said the plan isn't to simply add a tactile effect onto videos after they're already made, hoping his company can work more directly with studios and advertisers to make new kinds of mobile videos.

"Our entree into the space has been advertising," Patton said. "But our long-term play is not only advertising. We're looking at short-form video, long-form video, user-generated, sports content. There's a whole host of applications."