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Tanvas wants to let you feel fabric through your touchscreen

New surface haptics let you feel different materials, like silk, cotton or even grass, on your touchscreen.

Josh Miller/CNET

Imagine shopping for clothes on your iPad and actually being able to feel the fabric before you make a purchase. That's the idea at the core of Tanvas Touch -- a surface haptics technology on display at CES 2017.

You might be familiar with ordinary haptic feedback. Smartphones use it to help make typing on a touchscreen feel more tangible. When you touch the flat screen, the key you pressed vibrates slightly to give the impression that you're pressing a physical button. After extensive research at Northwestern University, TanvasTouch technology refines that same idea so that if you scroll your finger across your iPad, you can actually tell the difference between corduroy and silk.

Though I'm excited by the idea, I wasn't impressed by the demo at CES. I scrolled my finger across the screen (a repurposed Nexus 9 tablet) on surfaces supposed to resemble wooden bridges, cobblestone, and grass. I could certainly feel a difference between each. The area of each vibration was shrunk, for instance, so that grass feels grainy thanks to all of the tiny feedback centers.

Still, maybe my expectations were too high, but I was never fooled into thinking I was touching anything other than a tablet. My coworker Ry Crist was more impressed. And again, the concept of the technology is downright cool, even if it can't completely replicate other surfaces.

Tanvas is rolling out the tech now, and it could be implemented into anything with a touchscreen, or even put on top of flat surfaces like tables. Other than shopping, the tech could increase immersion in games or even help the visually impaired.