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A Finger's Touch

Happily, the wizards who work on haptic interfaces have not let a few challenges stop them from nudging us on our way into new digital realities. The result includes the fingerprint recognition that unlocks your luxury car and recognizes your preprogrammed seating position.

And as long as your fingerprints are unlocking your car door, why not use them to lock and unlock your phone? Atrua technologies is marketing a similar haptic system, called Wings, for handsets, hoping you'll soon be using your fingerprint to unlock your cell phone for outgoing calls and using a thumbprint to approve a monetary transaction, making mobile commerce more secure. Pressure-sensitive receptors will allow you to play games on the handset, using your finger as a joystick.

It is a short distance from the finger to the hand and from input to output. If we still fall short of plug-and-play replaceable human parts, prosthetic hands that press and hold an object are a current reality—but the road there has been tough going.

By the late 1990s, artificial hands were still actuated by myoelectric technology that used sensors in the forearm to tell the hand when to open and close. Reproducing use of the fingers still eluded researchers. A biomedical engineer named William Craelius, at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, began work in 1997 on finger movement triggered by sensors. His success has been good enough to allow one subject to play simple tunes on a keyboard.

Meanwhile, David Gow, at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh, attached a "bionic" hand that allowed the recipient to tie his own shoes. He has repeated his success many times since, but the ability to guide such finger activity remains a function of the owner's vision, not sense of touch.

Research continues in places like the Neurobiotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon on topics such as neuromuscular hand control, but for now, artificial hands can grasp the world but cannot feel it.

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