Technology is ever evolving and manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to give their product the market edge. It is unsurprising that communication between humans and machines is at the forefront of this, after all we are becoming ever dependent on technology and what it can offer us.
From Alexa reminding us to pick up milk to our iPhone’s providing us with navigational support when driving. Currently most communication is either audio and/or visual but what if we could take interaction to the next level and work with technology that would responed to our touch by touching us back? Welcome to the world of haptics and its multitude of applications.
The word haptics is derived from the Greek word “haptikos” which means a sense of touch.
The Power of Touch
Touch can communicate a whole ream of information; shape, texture, stiffness, pain, temperature, spatial awareness of our body in any given space - the list goes on. Our somatosensory system is constantly streaming information for our brain to process. Interestingly information derived from touch is processed by our brains faster than either audio and visual.
History of Haptics
Haptics in not a new concept and was originally applied to the gaming industry back in the early 90’s and the technology was used to provide vibrations in hand held controllers to provide feedback interaction with the on-screen motions. Remember the Nintendo 64 rumble pack? These were generally provided by hardware installations such as eccentric rotating mass (ERM) actuators; (an electric motor with an off-centre mass that would spin – displacing the motor in order to provide the vibration) or piezoelectric actuators (a ceramic material to which an electrical charge was applied -causing the material to expand and contract causing the vibrations).
Over time haptic feedback has been applied to more industries, including simulators for training within the aviation, dental, veterinary and human surgery sectors.
Since 2008, King’s College London has used a workstation that utilises haptic technology. It is called a HapTel and allows dental students to use a drill in a virtual environment. The haptic feedback allows them to feel the different sensation of drilling into healthy enamel versus that of drilling into a decayed tooth. Prior to the application of haptics, the students worked with ‘phantom head’ that allowed procedures and extractions to be completed – however as the materials were very different to the real thing (i.e. rubber gums and plastic teeth) the training experience wasn’t that close to the real thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTBJTgTLywE
The Haptic Cow and Haptic Horse have been used within veterinary training. These were designed and developed to help students palpate a cow’s reproductive tract to diagnose pregnancy and perform fertility examinations and that of a horse’s abdomen – for diagnosis of problems such as colic. This virtual reality platform is extremely useful as the student can safely feel the animal’s anatomy, in order to understand how much pressure should be applied and where, but also professors are able to monitor what the student is doing – to provide correction and advice. Something that is not possible with the real thing. https://www.virtalis.com/haptic-cow/
In human surgeries teleoperated devices are being devised by companies such as Bristol Robotics Laboratory for tumour localisation procedures. This device offers tactile sensing and feedback (touch information felt on the skin) and kinaesthetic sensing and feedback (touch information felt in the muscles and the bones). http://www.brl.ac.uk/researchprojects/medicalrobotics/hapticsfortele-surgery.aspx
The aviation industry uses haptic feedback in their flight simulators to make them more interactive. Using a virtual reality headset and a haptic glove, with receptors in the finger tips, the pilots can touch all buttons and switches within the flight deck. Without this only the joystick and pedals can be moved and other actions are completed by digital renderings – meaning the student pilot points in the switch/level/buttons location to complete this task. The application of the glove allows them to instead feel the object, its surface, texture and stiffness in operation. Making the experience more realistic and more transferable to the real-life environment. It is also more cost effective than a scaled mock-up of the cock pit.
Also, commonly used in teleoperation, for environments where it is unsafe for humans, a remote-controlled machine/device can be utilised so we can assess an in-situ problem in a location we would never be able to access. This is utilised in the nuclear industry and within deep-sea mining.
The Positives of Haptics Feedback
The reported positives from users of haptic feedback are numerous and tell of increased engagement, interaction and emotional connection are not surprising given how we as humans respond to touch. However, the other positives are an increase in efficiency and accuracy and the provision of high fidelity training environments. The presence of real world feedback and the virtual reality environment enables students to learn accurately and safely.
Haptics, like any other area of technology, is developing and evolving and the results are not only exciting but bordering on science fiction.
Ultahaptics, a company based in Bristol, have taken things to the next level, devising technology that allows tactile sensations in mid-air using ultrasound technology. The user can touch and feel a digital product without being in contact with any physical surface.
This technology has already been utilised within the automotive industry for controlling in car audio and information systems. The ability to action controls, such as skipping a song, with a hand gesture means less distraction for the driver and the need to take their eyes off the road. Also, its implementation in the Manchester Museum allowed visitors to actually touch items from the Ancient world collection. https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/features/haptic-interactive-technology-brings-visitors-closer-to-museum-collections/
With future projects focusing on human machine interfaces in public places, such as cash machines, it is hoped that by removing the need to physically touch the screen, interfaces will be cleaner and easier to maintain in the long term as the force of on screen interaction is removed.
The word haptics was only adopted into the Merriam-Webster online dictionary in 2018 and yet this industry is set to be worth just under £15 billion by 2022. It is exciting to think of how we will be interacting with technology in the not too distant future.