Where Is This Taking Us?
How is all this research doing toward getting us to virtual realities and actual robot design? Immersion and other companies offer a variety of VR gadgets emerging from the study of haptics, but genuine simulated humans are pretty far out on the horizons. What we have is a number of researchers around the globe working on perfecting robotic hands, trying to make them not only hold things securely, but also send and receive messages as our own do. Here is a representative sampling:
The BarrettHand BH8-262: Originally developed by Barrett Technology for NASA but now available commercially, it offers a three-fingered grasper with four degrees of freedom, embedded intelligence, and the ability to hold on to any geometric shape from any angle.
The Anatomically Correct Testbed (ACT) Hand: A project at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, this is an ambitious effort to create a synthetic human hand for several purposes. These include having the hand function as a teleoperator or prosthetic, as an investigative tool for examining complex neural control of human hand movement, and as a model for surgeons working on damaged human hands. Still in its early stages, the project has created an actuated index finger that mimics human muscle behavior.
Cyberhand: This collaboration of researchers and developers from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Denmark proposes to create a prosthetic hand that connects to remaining nerve tissue. It will use one set of electrodes to record and translate motor signals from the brain, and a second to pick up and conduct sensory signals from the artificial hand to nerves of the arm for transport through regular channels to the brain.
Research does not produce the products we'll be seeing in common use during the next few years. It produces their predecessors. But many of the scientists in these labs later create marketable devices. Keep an eye on these guys; they are the ones responsible for the world we'll be living in, the one with bionic replacement parts, robotic housekeepers, and gym equipment that will let us fly through virtual skies.