Can you feel me now?February 2, 2009
Haptics is the study of the sense of touch. Unlike our other senses – sight, smell, hearing, and taste – we can feel the world throughout our entire body. It’s a very complex system. We use our sense of touch to perceive temperature, texture, vibration, density, and more. But what if you couldn’t touch anything? How would you be affected?
Haptics and technology
Not everyone is taking to the digital revolution. People like the feel of a newspaper or of gliding pen across paper and do not like to work on a computer. Now that digital technology has progressed and grown into more corners of our lives, people are less accepting of the fact that it lacks the sense of touch.
The rumble pack in game controllers was one of the early attempts at integrating a sense of touch into the gaming experience. When you blow something up or drive off the track, an eccentric mass rotates (similar to a cell phone) and causes vibration. The sense isn’t overwhelming, submersive, or even accurate, but you can perceive meaning from that vibration, and it’s better than nothing.
For a class project, I developed a magnetically actuated force-feedback mouse. I added an electro-magnet to a common computer mouse and placed it on a steel mouse pad. When energized, the frictional force increased from almost nothing to 2N (.44lbf). Quite substantial. I devised several experiments to showcase how the feedback could be utilized and to explore how haptic feedback might improve a user’s ability to click on-screen items faster and more accurately. I created virtual textures and a target that slowed the mouse for you when you entered it. You can download a PDF of my paper detailing my project and the experimental results.
Companies and universities are studying the integration of haptic feedback into products of far greater importance than my class project. Intuitive Surgical leads the commercial medical robotics field with the da Vinci minimally invasive surgical system. Force feedback allows surgeons to have the tactile sensation similar to a standard minimally invasive procedure, except with the additional benefits of an intuitive control system, virtual boundaries, and motion scaling. Sensable Technologies has developed a haptic Dental Lab to digitally scan and interact with the details of a patient’s mouth to fabricate better crowns or bridgework. Immersion Medical manufactures a suite of surgical simulation products to provide doctors with lifelike training and planning tools. And, of course, Dr. Allison Okamura’s Haptics Lab (my alma mater) and other university programs are also on the cutting edge of haptics research, exploring new ways to interact with the tools of the next century.
The future of digital
As our interaction with the world around us becomes more digitized, we can expect great innovation in the use of haptic feedback. Logitech has improved on the vibrating game controller with some exciting racing wheels, and even the Blackberry Storm offers feedback in its touchscreen. We enjoy and need the sense of touch. It’s a large part of how we interact with the world and it improves our experience.
Dont’ worry, you will feel a thing.
Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix