July 4, 2003 BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Engineers in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at the University at Buffalo have developed a new technology that transmits the sensation of touch over the Internet.
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 precise application of "touch" and movement, says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of UB's Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
"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 successfully used it 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 says. 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 touched.
"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 explains.
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.
Kesavadas 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 transmitted.
"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 UB 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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