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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reach Out and Cyber-touch

Air Date: Week of

Computer scientists are studying how the sense of touch can be achieved in the virtual world. Recently, scientists at MIT actually achieved the first trans-atlantic touch – through computers. Rachel Gotbaum reports from Cambridge, Massachusetts.


CURWOOD: Recently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology achieved the first transatlantic touch through a computer. Actually it took two computers, one in London and one in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Scientists on both sides of the terminals were able to feel each other using new technology called haptic interfacing. In the future, it may mean that your computer screen will no longer be just an audible or visual medium, you'll have virtual touch, as well. From member station WBUR in Boston, Rachel Gotbaum explains.

GOTBAUM: Three decades ago, Mundayam Shriniwasan traveled from India to Yale University to study mechanical engineering. But his work on applied theory left him feeling isolated.

SHRINIWASAN: I wanted to do something real. So I went as a post-doc to Yale Medical School. And, they hired me, I think, so that I could fix all their equipment, and maintain their computer programs, and all that. And I did no such thing.

GOTBAUM: It was during his time at the medical school that Shrini, as he is called, says he first became interested in neuroscience.

SHRINIWASAN: The science of what they were doing fascinated me. And basically, they were studying sense of touch.

GOTBAUM: From that time on, Srini applied his knowledge of mechanical engineering to that cutting edge field. And in 1990, he set up the Touch Lab at MIT to research how the mechanics of touch could be applied to the virtual world.

SHRINIWASAN: You can touch and feel objects that are completely programmed into the computer. They do not exist in the real world. And they exist only in the cyberspace.

GOTBAUM: Sitting at a computer screen in the Touch Lab, graduate student Hyun Kim demonstrates how a computer user can actually feel objects that exist only in the virtual reality.

KIM: Have you tried the Phantom before?

GOTBAUM: I have not tried the Phantom. What is the Phantom?

KIM: So this--

GOTBAUM: The Phantom is the key to making the sense of touch happen. It looks like a small metal desk lamp. Attached to it is a metal pointer that operates like a computer mouse. In this system, moving the pointer manipulates the onscreen cursor. More on how the touch feedback happens in a moment. Right now, on the screen is a simple three-dimensional room. Inside the room are two square boxes and a little yellow ball.

KIM: So, this yellow ball is connected to end of this cursor. And these blocks and these walls are generated with what's inside the computer. And you can actually touch these walls. And then you can actually lift these guys up, push these blocks around. So, try it out. And you'll be able to feel the actual walls and these objects. Hold on to that.

GOTBAUM: When the cursor touches an object in the virtual world, this sends a signal back to the Phantom. Remember, that's the object that looks like a desk lamp. Inside the Phantom, there are tiny motors that, when activated, send force feedback against the pointer in just the way a real object would.

KIM: So, if you pick up two boxes, it's going to be actually twice as heavy. So you can go--

GOTBAUM: Let's try it. And, I can feel them. They're heavy. Oops, I just dropped it off. Okay.

KIM: So, it's lighter when you drop one, right?

GOTBAUM: Yeah, it was definitely lighter when I dropped one.

The Touch Lab is not simply about having fun with computers. Researchers here are developing tools for use in the non-virtual world. Touch Lab Director Shrini says medical students will soon be able to use this technology for training.

SHRINIWASAN: Just like pilots learn by operating flight simulators, we should be able to create virtual reality programs using-- which surgeons can not only see how the organs distort as they touch them, you can also feel those forces.

GOTBAUM: Back at one of the computer screens in the Touch Lab, graduate student Kim displays a 3-D model of human organs. Again, I use the pointer to direct the cursor. But in this instance, the cursor appears on the screen as a surgical scalpel. And instead of lifting boxes, I'm going to touch model human organs.

And now the intestines are deflating a little bit as a touch them. So, is this supposed to be what intestines really feel like?

KIM: Doctors came in, and they squished it, and said this is about right. So, this is close to what it's supposed to feel like in terms of softness and stiffness.

GOTBAUM: I'm pressing on the stomach now. And it's much more pliable than any of the other organs I've touched so far.

KIM: So, all the organs have different stiffnesses.

GOTBAUM: What's that purple thing?

KIM: That's the kidney.

GOTBAUM: There are more real-world applications. Shrini hopes his technology will one day enable surgeons to actually operate on patients via computer. In such a system, robotic sensors would convey tactile information to a surgeon, allowing the physician to literally feel what the robot is touching.

SHRINIVASAN: Suppose that you are doing heart surgery. And, the patient is in the next room. But the robot can be much better than the surgeon because it can have tinier hands. And, maybe it won't have any tremors at all because we can filter the tremors of even the best surgeon. So, doing this, you can overcome the limitations of the human hand somewhat, and essentially augment its performance. So, a surgeon can now become a super surgeon.

GOTBAUM: Recently, the computer scientists here made a breakthrough with their haptic technology. While a colleague sat at his computer in London, Shrini sat at his computer at MIT. Both men viewed the same virtual room on their screens. Inside the room was a cube and two cursors, one controlled from London and one from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each scientist was able to press their cursors against the cube. And together, they lifted it up, inside their virtual room.

Recently, they re-created the historic moment. Shrini calls Jasper Mortensen, a computer scientist at University College in London.

SHRINIVASAN: Hi, Jasper. This is Shrini.


SRINIVASAN: So, are we all set? Let’s see. Can you see my cursor?

SRINIVASAN: Okay. I can see yours. All right. Yeah, I can feel the forces. Okay. The cursor on the right is mine, the white one. The gold cursor, he is pressing the gold cursor on my left side. And then I am pressing on the right. And then we lift it. Ow, it fell down. Okay.

GOTBAUM: Scientists at the MIT Touch Lab say their experiments are still in early stages. They compare the field with television in the 1940s or with the first telephone connections made a hundred years ago. They believe this technology may someday allow blind computer users to feel objects that others can see onscreen, or allow visitors to a museum website to run their virtual fingers over sculpture. And it may even allow for the development of robots with a sense of touch.

But for Shrini, the most beneficial use for virtual touch technology may not yet be realized. For Living on Earth, I'm Rachel Gotbaum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[MUSIC: Govinda “Organic Beauty” Erotic Rhythms From Earth - Earthtone (2001)]



MIT’s Touch Lab


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