Tech Industry

Researchers tout touchy-feely technology

Haptic technology, which simulates humans' sense of touch and feel through tactile vibrations or "force feedback," may soon become a mainstream computing phenomenon.

Dr. Adam I. Levine doesn't consider himself a touchy-feely person, but he's a big fan of technology that simulates his sense of touch and feel.

The clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York no longer asks interns to learn to insert tubes into real patients' throats and lungs. Students taking his "airway management" class practice virtual bronchoscopies by pushing a fiberscope into a rubber sleeve attached to a computer. Students watch the scope's simulated journey on a monitor, and if they push too hard, the virtual patient coughs, bleeds or shouts, "Ouch!"

"You aren't subjecting a patient to the student's learning curve," Levine said. "The residents who use this have more confidence and are more relaxed when they begin working with real patients."

Levine isn't the only fan of so-called haptic technology--computer hardware and software that simulates humans' sense of touch and feel through tactile vibrations or force feedback. The nation's top research hospitals are embracing multimillion-dollar simulators, and the computer gaming niche popularized haptics in the mid-1990s, when force-feedback joysticks became the rage.

Haptics--from the Greek verb "to touch"--are still the realm of deep-pocketed research institutions and industrial design shops, but academics say they may soon become a mainstream computing phenomenon.

In January, the influential MIT Technology Review named haptics one of 10 emerging technologies that will "have a profound impact on the economy and on how we live and work." On Wednesday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed off a handheld computer that understands which way is up and where it's being touched. Gates said the technology would let the computer reorient the display according to how it's held or understand when a person is holding it like a cell phone to give dictation.

Executives at haptics research companies are especially hopeful about the science's contribution to e-commerce. They predict that within 10 years, shoppers will be able to "feel" a piece of silk or other fabric simply by rubbing their finger over a computer screen--removing a significant boundary for many would-be Internet shoppers.

Adding the sense of touch to the online experience could boost people's confidence in the goods they purchase online, expanding the scope of consumer transactions online from books or CDs to food, furniture and upholstery. Some pundits say Webvan and other online delivery services failed largely because shoppers wanted to squeeze Charmin and jab tomatoes instead of ordering through an online catalog. Haptics could change that.

"Will you be able to poke the vegetables through your computer before you buy them? I think so--eventually," said Margaret L. McLaughlin, professor of communications at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California and a key investigator at the school's Integrated Media System Center at the School of Engineering. "People in the labs are working on the whole package of reproducing all the senses, so it's not unrealistic to think about haptics and e-commerce together."

From hospitals to desktops and dashboards
Although scientists are still far from simulating the feel of corduroy or velvet on the computer screen, haptics have made mainstream inroads in the past year. In August 2000, Logitech unveiled the iFeel Mouse and the iFeel MouseMan--the first mainstream mice to transmit vibrations when a person scrolls over a hypertext link on a Web page or passes the cursor over a pull-down menu. The least-expensive version of Logitech's touchy-feely mouse costs $40.

iFeel MouseMan
Product demo
San Jose, Calif.-based Immersion, which developed the technology behind the iFeel, is trying to incorporate the same tactile responses into laptops--notorious for their bumbling, imprecise mouse pads. Immersion, whose endoscopy simulators are in 4 percent of U.S. medical schools, has also created a haptic control panel called iDrive for the 2002 BMW 7-series luxury sedan.

"Touch is part of the trinity of the user experience of sight, sound and touch," said Bruce Schena, chief technical officer of Immersion. "Several years from now, we'll think of the sense of touch as integral to the computer experience--the same way we think of sight and sound now."

Immersion scientists break down products into three general levels on a "haptic spectrum."

Least sophisticated are products that emit a "basic rumble"--a minor vibration that tickles the fingers, similar to that now found in the iFeel mice. More sophisticated is the use of vibration in such a way that the user "feels" textures. For example, a touch pad that emitted a series of rumbles and faster vibrations could simulate the feel of wide-wale corduroy or grooves in a record.

The most sophisticated haptic products incorporate vibrations with force. For example, hospital interns sliding a simulated fiberscope down a patient's throat will feel resistance when they hit a virtual tumor or artery wall. Gloves attached to computers can also convey a sense of weight, and aeronautics companies already use them to determine serviceability of parts.

"At the end of the day, it's all an illusion," Schena said. "We create the illusion of texture or weight reacting with the physical world, even though it's all controlled by computers and software."

SensAble Technologies of Woburn, Mass., also competes in the haptics field, but its products gravitate toward industrial and academic--not consumer--use. SensAble is best known for the Phantom, which allows people to experiment with virtual assembly, virtual prototyping, maintenance path planning, tele-operation, and molecular modeling through full force and torque feedback.

Originally designed by a group of MIT engineers, Phantoms are compatible with standard PCs and Unix workstations. The least expensive models cost more than $10,000--out of reach for most consumers. Still, SensAble President Bill Aulet said, the devices have penetrated more deeply into the corporate market than he initially thought possible.

When they were introduced six years ago, Phantoms only worked with special SGI computers that cost $250,000 or more. They can now be installed on some IBM desktop computers that cost as little as $5,000. Within a year, Aulet said, 99.9 percent of new PCs will ship with hardware that is enabled for 3D graphics.

"Moore's Law is working in our favor," Aulet said. "In addition, there are 3D graphics that are moving even faster than Moore's Law...The question is not whether we have the ability to create haptics for desktops but what are you going to use it for, and what is your interface?" (Moore's Law states that the number of transistors a chip can hold will double every 18 to 24 months, as transistor size shrinks.)

"Releasing the creative spirit"
In addition to the Phantom, SensAble began selling in July the FreeForm modeling system, which replicates the look and feel of clay in a 3D computer image. FreeForm, which runs on any Windows NT SP6 computer with a Single Pentium 933MHz or Dual 400MHz processor and 512MB or more RAM, allows people to build model toys, shoes, classical fine-arts sculptures, musical instruments, or anything else in a virtual, 3D rendering instead of with clay or plastic.

Aulet said FreeForm's biggest advantage is that people with little or no computer experience can use it within a few hours of experimenting. That's because the system relies mainly on the sense of touch and does not seem as intimidating as 3D graphics applications that rely on text-based commands. Shoemakers at Wolverine Worldwide and toy makers at Hasbro use FreeForm.

"There's no question this will help us pay the bills and make us profitable," Aulet said of FreeForm. "But more than that, we're releasing the creative spirit. Until now, you haven't been able to use touch to create anything, so we think this will unleash a creativity for new products, animation, Web sites and even just for art's sake that wasn't there before."

Although creating models for art's sake is an interesting endeavor, some academics are focused on more pedestrian haptic applications. In particular, academics say, haptics advance the use of computers among disabled people. For example, adding the sense of touch to the skill set of computer users would be a boon to visually impaired people, who now rely on Braille keyboards or bars of raised pins on the monitor.

"Blind people, especially those who are blind since birth, can't perceive depth so they don't read graphics well," said Brent Gillespie, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "But you can motorize a mouse and then they can feel things on the screen and navigate a little more easily."

Haptic researchers are also working on hardware and software that will enable people to feel fabric in great detail--right down to the grain of the thread and the bias. But, he said, mainstream commercial use of haptics for e-commerce is years away.

"I'm not sure how well you'll be able to feel the bias in 10 years," Gillespie said, "but I'm pretty sure that something pretty exciting will happen in haptics in the next decade."