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Haptics in a Microcontroller?

TI caught my eye when they released a microcontroller that they said was “haptics-enabled.” A few seconds of thought convinced me that this concept needed some unpacking.

Haptics is all about devices providing feedback through some kind of touch mechanism. It could be as passive as raised bumps telling you that your fingers are in the right place, or it could be through vibrations or other active events that you can feel. It’s a hot topic, one we’ll probably be seeing much more of.

But… TI’s new MSP430TCH5E microcontroller is… a microcontroller. How can that generate haptic feedback? Does it have a specific hardware module for driving a specific vibratory engine? Seems unlikely, since haptics has lots of ways of being implemented; there’s no “mainstream” mechanism that’s suitable for hardening. Is there?

The release does talk of software libraries and SDKs. Could this be just about software? But… if so, why is it unique to this microcontroller?

I checked in with them, and the details of whatever the answer is are confidential; they’re not saying. But it does have to do with protecting IP. So my take on it is that this is a microcontroller/software bundle that includes haptic libraries. And you can’t use those libraries on other microcontrollers. Why not? Not sure… it could be the license: to get this you most likely have to promise to play by their rules. And if the solution is worth it, most upstanding businesses are not willing to risk legal hassles by playing games trying to port to another processor.

But it may also be that there’s some kind of hardware lock – something specifically put in place that the libraries interrogate to ensure that they’re running on a designated platform. Since, as far as I know, this specific microcontroller isn’t available without the haptics library, that may be the case. (It would be an easy design strategy to have a basic platform that simply has an ID that can be changed with one mask to make the device “unique.”)

I don’t know if this is what they did, but it would certainly be doable, and would add some practical teeth to the license. And if the low-level code is in machine language, it would be really hard to hack.

You can read more about what you can do with this in their announcement. And if you have any other clues about what’s going on, please post in the comments.

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