Though the field of haptics is fairly nascent, recent scientific research hints towards a future where this non-verbal form of communication could be utilised just as powerfully as sight and sound.
There are things you actually feel…and then there is the whole pose of your body
One such scientist is mechanical engineering professor, Katherine Kuchenbecker, from the University of Pennsylvania, who has been conducting research into a field called Haptography (haptic photography). Just as a photograph serves as a visual record, Kuchenbecker has been investigating how we can record what something feels like to touch.
Before explaining how Haptography works, however, it is important to understand the two components that make up touch: tactility and kinaesthesia.
Kuchenbecker says, “There are things you actually feel…and then there is the whole pose of your body and how hard you are having to work your muscles to hold your body in position or push on an object.”
When you want to learn about an object through touch, not only will you place your hand on it, its also likely that you will move your hand along its surface to understand the object’s texture and form.
With this in mind Kuchenbecker developed a pen-like tool with various sensors inside. When the tool is moved over a particular object or material these sensors collect data about that movement. A force sensor records how hard you are pushing the tool; a motion-tracking sensor tells exactly where you’ve moved it; a vibration sensor and accelerometer detects the shaking back and forth of the tool.
Once the handheld tool is moved over an area, say over a stone surface, that collected data is programmed into a tablet computer. When you move a stylus, embedded with a voice coil actuator (motion device), over the screen, it triggers vibrations similar to those felt if you were to move the tool across the real surface.
Medical simulation will continue to grow around the world…to reduce cost and errors
Haptography has many uses. It could be used for online shopping by letting you ‘feel’ the material of an item of clothing from your computer. It could also be used for education, for example, Kuchenbecker thinks it could be incorporated into digital textbooks where you feel, say, the force of a spring, or as a way of allowing children to virtually touch precious museum exhibits.
Healthcare is another area in which haptics could be employed. For example, Kuchenbecker believes dentist students could gain from this technology. By collecting the data from the a dental probe moving along different types of teeth, some in good condition others not, this could be used to create a ‘touchtrack’ (by holding a repeating tool the vibrations are played back) along with a video, so they can learn to feel the difference between teeth in different states of health without having to practice on a patient first.
Looking to the future Kuchenbecker believes it will be in medicine where haptics really takes off. She says, “Medical simulation will continue to grow around the world, especially in the US, where there is a lot of pressure to reduce the cost and errors in healthcare and to enable new trainees and new surgeons and doctors to deliver excellent care from the very beginning and to become highly proficient without endangering patients.”
As well as helping students practice, haptic technology could also be used to help patients in rehabilitation. Kuchenbecker says, “As the population ages and there are more stroke survivors and other older individuals with various motor impairments, providing efficient ways to do physical therapy that doesn’t require a therapist to be with the patient at every instant could be really beneficial.”
A simple device could measure the motion of a patient’s movements as she or he retrains to control their limbs. If it wasn’t being done correctly a small vibration could tell you when you have gone wrong. This could also be used by athletes looking to perfect their motor skills.
With so many possibilities for haptic technology it seems that virtual touch will soon have just as an important place in communicating digitally as sound and vision. Watch, or rather, feel this space!