Touchy Gets More Feely

Haptics technology has been around for some time now. However, what caught my eye recently was the progress it’s made in a variety of applications.

Haptics, which derives from the Greek “to touch,” is a technique that marries computing power to our sense of touch. Usually, it requires ancillary mechanical equipment to actually create a sense of touch that’s felt by a computer user when running gaming software.

But how much better would the gaming experience become if this sense of touch was possible by just using your hands, rather than being manacled to mechanical apparatus that’s linked to the computer?

This is just what scientists achieved in Japan. By using ultrasound techniques, a research team at the University of Tokyo developed a haptic system based on ultrasonic transducers that create sound waves.

At the heart of this technological breakthrough is the basic physics relating to sound waves. These create a pressure as they travel; as the waves from the transducers coincide they create what the researchers refer to as a focal point.

A key component of this system is a camera that monitors the position of the user’s hands and moves the transducer outputs, thereby moving the focal point of the sound waves to positions relative to the user’s hands. The sensation is that the user feels like he or she is actually touching an object.

Further research will go into the system so that the “objects” being felt feel firmer and have a variety of shapes and textures.

Of course, gaming is a natural application for haptics, but additional research in Japan has highlighted important medical applications as well. One potential application would be intelligent scalpels that could sense different tissue textures as surgeons progress through an operation. They would present a physically felt resistance to move further should the scalpel be approaching vital arteries or organs.

In fact, the use of haptics may only be limited by people’s imaginations. For the blind, it could present a way of feeling shapes and textures. It could also prevent them from approaching hazardous situations in their homes.

The only possible problem with transducer-created ultrasound is that to create harder, more clearly defined, virtual objects, more forceful waves are needed. There is a limit here, in the fact that too much uncontrolled ultrasound can damage hearing. However, that surely must be a situation that can be monitored and controlled by associated electronics systems that will safeguard users.

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