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Practical Techie: Sense of touch is soon coming to our virtual worlds

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Web technology makes continuous inroads into physical reality, this time attempting to replicate one of our most precious senses: the human touch. 

Touch gives us a deeper understanding of things, which cannot be fully experience by sight, or hearing. The task ahead is to replicate as much of its real life tact authenticity into machines. Haptics is the tech name for such a science.

Since the main features of virtual reality are imagination, immersion and reciprocity, the trend is to greatly enhance the interaction between biological and electronic eco-systems. 

We already have realistic visual and auditory feedbacks in our interaction with machines. Haptics — bilateral signal communications between human and computer — are still so very lacking.

BACKSTORY — It has taken three decades for touch computing to take hold. It all began with personal computer keyboards for input, mouse interaction, touch pads and then evolved into touch screens. 

Haptic sensation obtained through virtual interaction is severely poor compared to the sensation obtained through physical reciprocity. That is why computer scientists have been in a quest since the 1960’s to enhance the mechanics of digital touch. In real life, perception of stiffness, roughness and temperature of objects are typical sensations of touch, which hopefully can soon be replicated by electronic means.

Another aim is to perfect the manipulation of objects and motion or force control tasks such as grasping, touching, feeling of surfaces. In video games, for example, the only advances have been to provide visual and auditory feedbacks. Some do offer simple haptic feedback such as vibrations. Nothing, as yet comparable to the sensations of the physical world.

ADVANCING — In such surface haptics, the user’s fingertip slides along the touchscreen of a mobile phone with typical gestures such as panning, zooming and rotating. It is all one-dimensional in nature. A next step would be wearable haptics. Or “cybergrasping” of objects, mostly within virtual reality scenarios.

Wearing gloves or electronics prosthetics that can extend to the virtual world, the human touch and its sensations. At present, in gaming, but, hopefully in some future time into the realms of medical procedures and human relations.

Tech that will allow humans to “touch” each other virtually, even though separated by distances, the same way we see and hear each other via videoconferencing. A mother can touch her baby and feel its warmth at the nursery while she is at work in the office.

SKIN — Using so far only the senses of sight and hearing, virtual reality has given us impressive artificial worlds. Now, new technology could make those worlds even more realistic by simulating one of the most crucial ways in which we experience things: skin sensing. At Northwestern University (Illinois), artificial intelligence iconoclasts are experimenting with a flexible, lightweight synthetic skin that effectively simulates human touch. So far it exists only in seven-inch patches that can be stuck onto any part of the body. The patch uses wireless actuators that vibrate against the skin to simulate tactile sensations. Not only pulse, but texture and temperature.

The goal is to manufacture wearables, so that humans can extend the sensations of tact deep into the evermore realistic virtual worlds we will be creating at technology evolves.

It promises to be “sensational” to use a pun, because we must remember, skin is the human body’s largest organ.

There is nothing like touch — or the simulation thereof — to deliver a profound emotional connection between people and objects.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.
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