Engineers in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the University at Buffalo have developed a new technology that transmits the sensation of touch over the Internet. Here are some details.
The breakthrough could lead to creation of haptic technologies that convey the sense of touch and would teach users how to master skills and activities -- such as surgery, sculpture, playing the drums or even golf -- that require precise application of "touch" and movement, says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of UB's Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
The researchers call their technology "sympathetic haptics," which means "having the ability to feel what another person feels," Kesavadas says. The technology communicates what another person is feeling through an active-tracking haptics system linked between two personal computers.
[Note: According to whatis.com, haptics is the science of applying touch (tactile) sensation and control to interaction with computer applications.]
How does the system work?
The system uses a virtual-reality data glove to capture the hardness or softness of an object being felt by one person. This feeling is communicated instantaneously to another person seated at a computer terminal who, using a sensing tool, follows a point on the computer screen that tracks and transmits the movements and sensations of what the first person is feeling. The sensations are transmitted in the form of exerted force and through information about the position of the objects being touched.
"When the person receiving the sensation matches the movements of the person feeling the object, he not only understands how the person moved his hand, but at the same time he feels exactly the kind of forces the other person is feeling," Kesavadas explains.
And what kind of applications can we expect from this technology?
Kesavadas and his co-researchers are interested especially in medical applications for the technology. They are pursuing ways to communicate to medical students the exact pressure employed by an expert surgeon as he or she cuts tissue with a scalpel. And they think the technology could one day be used for medical diagnosis -- allowing a doctor to feel a human organ via the Internet, checking the organ for injury or disease.
They also are investigating the technology's use for manufacturing applications that involve touch and pressure, such as polishing or grinding.
Interestingly, another haptics technology story appeared a couple of days before. ACM TechNews wrote an analysis of "Innovators harness the power of touch, published by vnunet.com.
Sony's Tokyo-based Interactive Laboratories are straddling the cutting edge of haptics technology with the development of the Touch Engine, a prototype touchscreen interface that is bendable and offers users "feelable" graphics.
The device, designed by a team led by Russian researcher Ivan Poupyrev, features flexible crystal strips or actuators placed underneath the liquid crystal display of a personal digital assistant (PDA).
The actuators pulsate in response to tactile pressure, to the degree that the user feels a clicking sensation, explains Poupyrev.
Sources: University of Buffalo, June 28, 2003; Michael FItzpatrick, vnunet.com, June 26, 2003
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