Aug 08 2008

Touch the Future

Advances in haptic interfaces could provide benefits in the classroom.

In the not-too-distant future, students may be able to not only see virtual objects on their computer screen but also touch them.

The field of haptics — the science and technology of touch — is exploding. Haptic interfaces are actually computer devices that feature a controller, similar to a joystick, which connects human hands to virtual environments by simulating the sense of touch. Haptic devices convert motion into meaningful quantities that can be fed to the computer and converted to physical forces and torques that can be felt by the user.

Unlike graphic rendering, which can satisfy the eye at refresh rates of 30 frames per second or less, haptic rendering must occur at rates approaching one kilohertz per second to feel realistic to the hand.

Although university researchers have been exploring the technology for more than a decade, it’s still in its infancy. While no one yet knows the full impact haptic devices may have on computing applications in the future, one thing is clear: They’re going to be widespread, from classrooms to training rooms, because of their ability to enrich the learning experience.

Researchers at three leading universities explain how haptic devices have already started changing the face of education and training.

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

Ralph Hollis, a Carnegie Mellon research professor, has been working on haptic interfaces for the past 14 years. Unlike other interfaces that use mechanical linkages and electric motors to create tactile sensations, his devices are the only ones that use the principles of magnetic levitation to produce the sensation of touch.

The technology should find a home in science, math and physics classes across all grade levels, Hollis says. With these improvements, students will be able to feel mechanical or electromagnetic forces.

To demonstrate the impact of haptics on learning, Hollis’ research team at Carnegie created a 3D virtual spring. Using the handle or joystick on the haptic device, students can grab the top of the spring and press it or twist it while feeling the effects. They can also change the physical properties of the spring, such as the diameter of the wire or number of coils. With each change, they can see and feel the increase or decrease in the spring’s tension.

So far, Hollis’ team has built 10 magnetic-levitation haptic devices. Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, six of the devices will be sent to universities in the United States and Canada, including Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, Purdue, the University of Utah and the University of British Columbia. This summer, Hollis’ company, Butterfly Haptics, began marketing the device for about $50,000.

While true learning requires all of our senses, says Hollis, the sense of touch is the next frontier for computer interface technology.

“We principally use our hands to explore and interact with our surroundings,” he says. “The sense of touch will be the next sense to play an important role in computer interfaces.”