Space & Innovation

Tech Gets ‘Touchy-Feely’ With Haptic Engineering

Technology can help users "touch" virtual objects and distant environments as though they were real and within reach.

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it doesn't provide any insight into how objects in the real world feel when you touch them. In fact, capturing the "feel" of objects is a relatively unchartered discipline, one that Kathering Kuchenbecker, a mechanical engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks needs to be explored in more detail.

Kuchenbecker recently spoke to the audience at TEDYouth in Manhattan about her research in the field of haptics. Haptics is a novel field of engineering that explores the ways that technology can help users "touch" virtual objects and distant environments as though they were real and within reach.

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Human touch, explained Kuchenbecker, has two components- tactile sensations that can be felt in the skin and kinesthetic sensations, which have to do with how the body is positioned, how it moves and the forces it encounters. Engineers in the field of haptics are working on ways to incorporate both aspects of the human sense of touch into new technologies.

And the technologies that Kuchenbecker and her team are developing have a number of real world applications. They have created a stylus, for example, that when applied to the screen of a tablet, allows the holder to "feel" different surfaces. The stylus imitates the way it would feel to touch a piece of silk or a rough piece of canvas.

Kuchenbecker believes that this tool could find application in the realm of online shopping, where consumers could get a virtual feel of a fabric or other material before purchasing it. The stylus could also be used to create interactive museum exhibits, allowing visitors to "feel" sculptures or artifacts without having to handle them.

Another haptic technology could find practical application in medical training. An accelerometer attached to a dental tool could help dentists-in-training determine which teeth have cavities and which are healthy.

This technology works by recording the measurements associated with touch in the real world- in this case, the different feelings a dentist experiences when touching a healthy versus unhealthy tooth- and then replicating them with haptic tools, like a dental explorer.

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A dental student would then be able to "touch" virtual teeth with the tool and learn how to identify a cavity.

Kuchenbecker believes that similar haptic technology could also be used to create more life-like video game experiences involving the sense of touch.

The engineering team at UPenn has also developed a device that can be used for stroke rehabilitation. Their haptic arm bands guide a stroke victim's limbs to make specific movements, much like a physical therapist would. Kuchenbecker said that these arm bands might also find useful application in the training of dancers and other athletes.

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