What are Tactons?
Tactons are “structured tactile messages” for communicating non-visual information. Structured patterns of vibration can be used to encode information, for example a quick buzz to tell me that I have a new email or a longer vibration to let me know that I have an incoming phone call.
Vibrotactile actuators are often used in HCI research to deliver Tactons as these provide a higher fidelity of feedback than the simple rotation motors used in mobile phones and videogame controllers. Sophisticated actuators allow us to change more vibrotactile parameters, providing more potential dimensions for Tacton design. Whereas my previous example used the duration of vibration to encode information (short = email, long = phone call), further information could also be encoded using a different vibrotactile parameter. Changing the “roughness” of the feedback could be used to indicate how important an email or phone call is, for example.
How do we create Tactons?
Now that we know what Tactons are and what they could be used for, how do we actually create them? How can we drive a vibrotactile actuator to produce different tactile sensations?
Linear and voice-coil actuators can be driven by providing a voltage but, rather than dabble in electronics, the HCI community typically uses audio signals to drive the actuator. A sine wave, for example, produces a smooth and continuous-feeling sensation. For more information on how audio signal parameters can be used to create different vibrotactile sensations, see ,  and .
Tactons can be created statically using an audio synthesiser or a sound editing program like Audacity to generate sine waves, or can be created dynamically using Pure Data. The rest of this post is going to be a quick summary of Pure Data components which can be used in creating vibrotactile feedback in real-time. I’ve just provided an overview of the key components which I use when creating tactile feedback. With the components discussed, the following vibrotactile parameters can be manipulated: frequency, spatial location, amplitude, “roughness” (with amplitude modulation) and duration.
Tactons with Pure Data components
osc~ Generates a sine-wave. First inlet or argument can be used to set the frequency of the sine-wave, e.g. osc~ 250 creates a 250 Hz signal.
dac~ Audio output. First argument specifies the number of channels and each inlet is used to send an incoming signal to that channel, e.g. dac~ 4 creates a four-channel audio output. Driving different actuators with different audio channels can allow vibration to be encoded spatially.
*~ Multiply signal. Multiplies two signals to produce a single signal. Amplitude modulation (see  and  above) can be used to create different textures by multiplying two sine waves together. Multiplying osc~ 250 with osc~ 30 creates quite a “rough” feeling texture. This can also be used to change the amplitude of a signal. Multiplying by 0 silences the signal. Multiplying by 0.5 reduces amplitude by 50%. Tactons can be turned on and off by multiplying the wave by 1 and 0, respectively.
delay Sends a bang after a delay. This can be used to provide precise timings for tacton design. To play a 300 ms vibration, for example, an incoming bang could send 1 to the hot inlet of *~, enabling the tacton. Sending that same bang to delay 300 would send a bang after 300 ms, which could then send 0 to the cold inlet of *~, ending the tacton.
phasor~ Creates a ramping waveform. Can be used to create sawtooth waves. This tutorial explains how this component can also be used to create square waveforms.