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A Computer's Touch

Frequently, the goal in haptics research is not to communicate touch-related information to the computer, but to send such information from a computer to a human, as with the force-feedback resistance in a game steering wheel when the user turns a sudden corner.

At Georgia Tech, this kind of feedback takes a different turn. The Intelligent Machines Dynamics Laboratory creates this kind of tactile output in projects that include its virtual forklift. The design allows the machinery (at a remote location) to be controlled through the Internet by means of a haptic interface. Information sent to and from the interface allows the operator to "feel" a wall or edge so that the device can be operated with the sensitivity necessary to reduce forklift damage and ensure gentle handling.

This kind of force resistance is also used in virtual scenarios to train medical personnel. Haptic interfaces make it possible for nurses to feel the resistance that human flesh offers when giving shots—even allowing for variation by special settings like baby skin. In much the same manner, physicians-in-training can feel the resistance of human tissue as they thread endoscopes through a virtual bowel or perform surgery on virtual organs—before they try these emerging skills on you, me, or our next-door neighbor, Fred.

But a real gem in the crown of haptic feedback studies is the work being done in physical therapy. Grigore Burdea, at the Center for Advanced Information Processing at Rutgers University, led the development of a glove for patients with hand injuries. A virtual ball, visible on a screen, feels solid in the patient's hand due to the resistance provided by the glove. Meanwhile, sensors collect and track medical data that can be used to determine how much resistance the injured hand should have for optimal speedy recovery.

A variation on this device, available for ankle injuries, provides a pressure-sensitive game interface that allows for scoring and increasing levels of proficiency, virtually eliminating boredom with the repetitive exercise. Meanwhile, sensors can track changes and improvements in muscular coordination.

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