transmits sense of touch over Web
Breakthrough by UB engineers could lead to technology
that teaches users how surgeons use a scalpel.
by John Della Contrada, June 19, 2003, Contributing
Editor, University at Buffalo "Reporter", Volume 34, Number 30
brought to you by BLIND VISION Technology Update
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Engineers in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at UB have developed
a new technology that transmits the sensation of touch over the
The breakthrough could lead to creation of haptic technologies
that convey the sense of touch and would teach users how to
master skills and activities-such as surgery, sculpture, playing
the drums or even golf-that require the precise application of
"touch" and movement, says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of
the Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical
and aerospace engineering in the School of Engineering and
"As far as we know, our technology is the only way a person can
communicate to another person the sense of touch he feels when
he does something," says Kesavadas. "We have added an important
dimension to communication of touch sensations."
Though the technology is still a long way from being able to
capture and communicate the complex feel of a perfect golf
swing, Kesavadas and his fellow researchers have used it
successfully to transmit from one person to another over the
Internet the sensation of touching a soft or hard object, and
the ability to feel the contour of particular shapes.
The researchers call their technology "sympathetic haptics,"
which means "having the ability to feel what another person
feels," Kesavadas notes. The technology communicates what
another person is feeling through an active-tracking haptics
system linked between two personal computers.
The system uses a virtual-reality data glove to capture the
hardness or softness of an object being felt by one person. This
feeling is communicated instantaneously to another person seated
at a computer terminal who, using a sensing tool, follows a
point on the computer screen that tracks and transmits the
movements and sensations of what the first person is feeling.
The sensations are transmitted in the form of exerted force and
through information about the position of the objects being
"When the person receiving the sensation matches the movements
of the person feeling the object, he not only understands how
the person moved his hand, but at the same time he feels exactly
the kind of forces the other person is feeling," Kesavadas
He notes that the sensation of touch is the brain's most
effective learning mechanism-more effective than seeing or
hearing-which is why the new technology holds so much promise as
a teaching tool.
"You could watch Tiger Woods play golf all day long and not be
able to make the kind of shots he makes, but if you were able to
feel the exact pressure he puts on the club when he putts, you
could learn to be a better putter," Kesavadas says.
He and his co-researchers are interested especially in medical
applications for the technology. They are pursuing ways to
communicate to medical students the exact pressure employed by
an expert surgeon as he or she cuts tissue with a scalpel. And
they think the technology could one day be used for medical
diagnosis-allowing a doctor to feel a human organ via the
Internet, checking the organ for injury or disease.
They also are investigating the technology's use for
manufacturing applications that involve touch and pressure, such
as polishing or grinding.
Another benefit of the technology, according to Kesavadas, is
its ability to capture for future replay and continual
instruction the sensation of an activity after it's been
"It almost would be like one-on-one training," Kesavadas says.
"You could replay it over and over again. Hospitals could use it
to deliver physical-therapy sessions to patients, for example."
According to Kesavadas, the sympathetic haptics method is better
suited for transmission of touch than are other haptic
technologies that employ "master-slave" or "collaborative"
techniques. These other methods can help guide another person's
movements-when tracing the shape of an object, for example-or
can enable two people to complete a simple task together over
the Internet, such as "lifting" an object cooperatively. But
they do not truly transmit the sensation of touch, he says.
"With the other technologies, you're being forced to feel what
the other person is doing, but you're not actually feeling what
the other person is feeling," Kesavadas explains. "If I hold
your hand and force you to write, for example, you'd feel the
sensation of being dragged around, but you wouldn't feel the
sensation of actually writing.
"You can't teach something to somebody by forcing their
movements," he adds. "With our technology, you can do and feel,
which leads to learning. That's a crucial difference."
Kesavadas and co-researcher Dhananjay Joshi, a mechanical
engineering graduate student, will present the results of their
research at a fall meeting of the International Mechanical
Engineering Congress and R&D Expo in Washington, D.C.
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