Can You Feel Me Now? The Sensational Rise of Haptic Interfaces

touch me

Your first experience with haptics was probably your phone vibrating in your pocket. Or maybe it was the rumble pack on your N64 controller. But whatever the case, you probably didn’t know it as a haptic interface.
Haptics is to touch the way optics is to sight. It's a user interface that circumvents the cluttered inputs of sight and sound, and it's appearing in an increasing number of objects we interact with daily. Vibration is just the beginning.
Any sort of information received through touch is haptic; braille could be considered haptic communication. But as it appears in technology, it's generally either tactile (expressing texture) or kinesthetic (expressing force or position). Haptics is used to better robotic control, to increase realism in gaming, and even to sit up straighter.
The roots of haptic technology are mechanical, says Will Provancher, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah and co-chair of the World Haptics Technical Committee.
"Right around the time of WWII, people were trying to handle radioactive materials, and if you have direct contact with these materials, you will eventually die," he says. "So to be able to handle these materials safely, people started making kinematic linkages."
That is, scientists and engineers used a mechanical apparatus to manipulate the samples — pull, and it pulls, turn, and it turns. But more recently, computers have become an interface between controller (master) and controlled (slave). Motor control is much finer, but that's not always enough.

Haptics in Robotics


Take robot surgery, for example. It's difficult to respond accurately to solely visual cues, and when you're wielding a cutting tool, it's important to be able to tell how much pressure you're applying to whatever you're cutting, lest you slice right through it (and anything else in the way).
"People believe that by adding some tactile, or kinesthetic, just generally haptic feedback, there might be some potential advantages for improved surgical outcomes," says Provancher.
That's one path Kinea Design is trying to forge, with haptic tactors that provide feedback based on signals from artificial fingers. The company's research is targeted more at prosthetics — it's involved in DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program — but much of the feedback technology accomplishes similar functions. Sensors on the prosthetic's fingertips relay pressure, texture, and friction information back to a mount that artificially recreates it in the nerve endings at the juncture to the body.
 
Author: Nathan Hurst
Photo: Courtesy of HDT Global
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