Haptic tech turns phones into multi-sensory nature learning tools

Little biracial girl looking at phone

Researchers will develop new technology to allow children to experience nature through their smartphones by ‘feeling’ textures such as feathers, fur and tree bark.

Professor Advaith Siddharthan and his team from the Open University have received a share of £8 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to carry out this interdisciplinary research project. In collaboration with:

  • University of Edinburgh
  • Imperial College London
  • Learning through Landscapes.

This is one of 10 projects receiving funding to find sustainable digital solutions to pressing sustainability issues through the EPSRC Sustainable Digital Society call.

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said:

Sustainability should be at the heart and start of everything we do. No matter what the project, sustainability should be a key part of its planning.

The 10 projects receiving funding through EPSRC’s Sustainable Digital Society initiative seek to find innovative solutions to a diverse range of sustainability issues and, of course, the projects themselves have been planned with sustainability in mind.

Why haptic smartphone screens?

By simulating the experience of touching the natural world through haptic technology, the researchers are aiming to encourage and enhance pupils’ sensory explorations of nature. This will support better engagement with, and stewardship of nature, supporting the UK’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) commitments.

The twin threats of global pandemics and climate change mean it’s never been more important to engage children with science and with nature. Yet, many in the UK grow up with little or no access to the natural world.

Recent analysis of the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on children has shown a critical link between low educational attainment and reduced access to nature and the outdoors for children living in poverty. The use of haptic technologies will help foster greater interest in and appreciation of nature and the outdoors.

Professor Siddharthan said:

Our project develops technologies that encourage pupils to touch and feel, in order to provoke different scientific questions and inquiries and to help connect with nature. Why is a bumblebee so much hairier than a wasp? Why do oak trees have a rougher bark than beech?

How will it work?

The haptic adaptor kit will be fitted to pre-existing smart phones and tablets. This will help ensure the sustainability of the project and reduce waste.

The adaptors work by modulating the friction of the touchscreen, either through electrostatic methods or by vibrating the surface at ultrasound frequencies to create an air layer beneath the finger. When the surface friction is controlled as a function of image pixels under the finger, this gives the sensation of texture.

In this way, images on an ordinary phone screen can be made to feel like a leaf or a feather, or even animal fur.

The technologies will be developed at the Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, and be co-created in schools with project partners.

Co-Investigator Dr Laura Colucci Gray from Edinburgh’s Moray School of Education said:

Understanding qualitative perceptions such as scale, density, texture and pattern is core to developing conceptual thinking across math, science and art. Our research will embed sustainability into science teaching, and thus reinforce and sustain interest in the natural world.

Other projects

There are nine other projects receiving funding, each of them aimed at finding digital solutions to pressing sustainability issues. They range from:

  • decarbonising the electrochemical industry
  • making clothes last longer through care and repair
  • ensuring the ICT industry itself meets the standards of the Paris Agreement.
  • using the behaviour of bees as inspiration for research into improving home energy efficiency.

An interdisciplinary team including, Ecomorphosis D-lab and University of Bristol led by Associate Professor Sonja Oliveira (University of the West of England), will be developing a sustainable home energy management system inspired by bees’ communication patterns.

Their project will examine ways to optimise collective home energy management inspired by how bees communicate collective needs at an individual level. This will help to ensure targeted and responsive management of home energy demand, for:

  • residents
  • designers
  • housing developers
  • policymakers and planners.

This work adds to UKRI’s councils’ long tradition of investing in cutting-edge research and innovation to understand, tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change.

In the year the UK hosts the COP26 summit in November, UKRI will use its role as a steward of the research and innovation system to bring our communities together to:

  • create sustainable and resilient solutions
  • encourage new behaviours and new ways of living.

This will enable the UK to reach net zero by 2050.

Further information

The £8 million of funding comes from EPSRC’s Sustainable Digital Society call for research projects exploring user-focused, transformational digital technologies and services to achieve a sustainable digital society. An important element of the funding call was that the projects themselves needed to be undertaken in a sustainable way.

The projects receiving funding are:

CX: Consumer Experience (CX) digital tools for dematerialisation for the circular economy

Professor Sharon Baurley, Royal College of Art.

VENTURA: virtual decision rooms for water neutral urban planning

Dr Ana Mijic, Imperial College London.

DCEE: Digital Circular Electrochemical Economy

Professor Nilay Shah, Imperial College London.

Environmental impacts of digital services for health and wellbeing in the home

Ralitsa Hiteva, University of Sussex.

SENSE: Sensory Explorations of Nature in School Environments

Professor Advaith Siddarthan, Open University.

GLOW: Energy nested bio system flows: from the home to the hub

Dr Sonja Dragojlovic-Oliveira, University of the West of England.

Scalable circular supply chain for the built environment

  • Dr Yingli Wang, Cardiff University
  • Rajiv Ranhan, Newcastle University.

EATS: Enhancing Agri-Food Transparent Sustainability

  • Professor Peter Edwards, University of Aberdeen
  • Dr Nicholas Watson, University of Nottingham
  • Dr Hannah Rudman, SRUC
  • Professor Mel Woods, University of Dundee.

Paris-DE: design principles and responsible innovation for a sustainable digital economy

Professor Gordon Blair, Lancaster University.

Beyond individual persuasion: towards a paradigm shift in interactive visualisation and sensing for environmental change

Enrico Costanza, University College London.


EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation.

Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields, including but not limited to:

  • healthcare technologies
  • structural engineering
  • manufacturing
  • mathematics
  • advanced materials
  • chemistry.

The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation.

Top image:  Credit: fizkes / Getty Images

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