Virtual Touch

There was an interesting article in New Scientist today about research towards developing a “haptic” glove. This glove would simulate tactile information, analagous to the way a television screen simulates visual information or speakers simulate auditory information. However, simulating touch is much more difficult for several reasons.

One of the main ways we determine the texture of something is through vibration. As we run our fingers over it, different textures have different patterns of high and low points, and vibration sensors in our fingertips are stimulated differently. Touch is complex, though, since we may also pick up and manipulate an object. As Tom Simonite writes in New Scientist,

“Virtual fabric” that feels just like the real thing is being developed by a group of European researchers. Detailed models of the way fabrics behave are combined with new touch stimulating hardware to realistically simulate a texture’s physical properties.

Detailed measurements of a fabric’s stress, strain and deformation properties are fed into a computer, recreating it virtually. Two new physical interfaces then allow users to interact with these virtual fabrics – an exoskeleton glove with a powered mechanical control system attached to the back and an array of moving pins under each finger. The “haptic” glove exerts a force on the wearer’s fingers to provide the sensation of manipulating the fabric, while the “touching” pins convey a tactile sense of the material’s texture.

(continue reading at New Scientist)

Of course, the benefits to virtual reality games are obvious. But there are many possible medical and industrial applications as well, such as manipulation of toxic substances or work in dangerous environments, or perhaps remote or robotic surgery.

There does not seem to be any olfactory or gustatory simulation on the horizon, though.