This paper reports the first step in the development of a tactile array suitable for the presentation of haptic information in virtual reality. The system is based on the electric field dependence of the viscosity of electrorheological fluids. The simulation, as well as the experimental realization of single tactels is described. The mathematical approach is based on the Eckart model (Eckart W 2000 Continuum Mech. Thermodyn. 12 341-62) and its validity is demonstrated by comparing the resulting yield stress with the experimental results from Wunderlich (2000 Dissertation Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg). Two different tactel designs are realized and the experimental results are compared with numerical simulation. The design of modification B is shown to be applicable for the realization of an actuator array with high spatial resolution.