Haptic engineering makes technology more real

The haptics technology is an emerging speciality that could change the way we communicate with our physical environment. Lynette Jones, a senior research scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering has been working on developing a touch-based communication device that transmits information through micro vibrators worn against the skin.

The purpose of Jones’ experiment is to assess how skin actually vibrates. She has built a range of micro accelerometers that measure how motors interact with human skin and how people perceive these vibrations. The success of this experiment could help in developing more effective haptic devices in the future. It can be applied across a range of mediums to improve quality of life as well as to enhance safety procedures. Think of rescue workers wearing a belt that sounds an alarm and alerts them of dangers, or a visually impaired person receiving direction alerts when walking on the street.

Jones is working with her team to develop the device further by varying the speed of the vibrations. She said: “People are very good at picking up tempo changes; you can use that for urgency, or proximity, or for warning someone that something's going to happen soon."

Haptics has been recognised as the unexplored discipline of technology that has huge potential. It will allow users to touch virtual objects and feel distant environments. A team of engineers led by Kathering Kuchenbecker at the University of Pennsylvania is testing the devices that are built on principles of haptic technology.  They have created a stylus that allows the holder to feel the surface when the stylus touches the screen of a tablet. The stylus will emulate human response when it comes in contact with different surfaces.

Haptic engineers are working towards developing applications that combine the human sense of touch and the science of technology to improve the user experience. Engineers believe that this tool can be instrumental in any field; it can be applied to the online shopping sector, where consumers can virtually feel the fabric of a material they want to purchase, or while touring a virtual museum, visitors can touch the sculptures and paintings without having to handle the objects directly. The possibilities that can be realised with use of haptic technology are endless.

Kuchenbecker believes that the science of haptics will be particularly useful to doctors and healthcare practitioners.  For example, a dentistry student can virtually touch teeth and learn how to identify a cavity; similarly students of other medical disciplines can virtually learn about different body parts by touching and feeling them.

Haptic technology will revolutionise the way we interact with physical things around us and the way we perceive them. It’s a futuristic tool that will irrevocably change the concept of tangibility.

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