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Touching Your Own Future: Haptic Tools

Great Gasping Cyborgs! Are we being assimilated by our tools? If so, we had better reach out and touch the keenest haptic tools at our disposal. Laurie Rowell gives you the skinny.
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I've had a bit to say in other articles about where haptic research is headed these days, about how the gurus of grasp are taking us by the hand and leading us into synthetic worlds that blur the differences between human and machine, so I thought it was time to kick back and have a look around at the goodies you can buy this afternoon to make life with your PC pretty virtual. But while I was busily investigating the potential of assorted haptic mice and force-feedback steering wheels, I also landed smack in a book by Andy Clark, called Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence. It takes the mind-punching point of view that we humans are not just becoming one with the machine, not just tripping down hell's high road that will lead eventually to our all becoming cyborgs; we are cyborgs already. What's more, we always have been.

Because of our cortical plasticity, tools become an extension of not just the human hand but the human brain as well.

Who could resist a theory like that?

Clark is keen on what he calls "haptic touch," which, to those of us who think haptic refers to touch, makes as much sense right out of the Cracker Jack box as talking about "audio hearing."

So I decided I had better ask him what he meant. I found him at the University of Edinburgh, where he is Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. (Perhaps I should explain that I did not go to Edinburgh, but found him virtually, by reaching out through electronic tools—in the manner he discusses in his book.)

That's how I learned that in ecological psychology, "haptic touch" is the name of the system that lets us feel stuff through objects we hold, to "feel the road through the stick or cane, or even through the wheels of a car we are driving." He explained that, in this instance, "force and torque sensors buried in the arm" and other muscles are "activated the same way when we use a stick as when we touch with our hand." This is what allows humans (and a goodly number of our primate cousins—not to mention possibly raccoons and otters) to treat tools as if they were extensions of our bodies, extending our sense of touch through them.

This is a concept that power computer users can really get behind and give a hearty shove. Have you ever heard a connoisseur shopping for a new input device? They zip through a dozen of them with a disdain that would abash Goldilocks, muttering "too large," "too small," "cramps my wrist," "button hard to reach," and "really need a cordless" until that final sigh is accompanied with a "just right" and the satisfied twitch of the chosen rodent or track ball.

"Aha!" said I aloud to myself, on pondering this matter. "Those tools that offer us haptic feedback, being both input and output devices for the old noggin, become double brain-extenders." I began to see that Andy Clark had a worthwhile word to say about haptics. In fact, as I sailed around finding new touch-related I/O goodies to talk about, I began to see what he meant about our cyborg-ness. Thus, never one to fight technology or beat back cognitive science, I say we embrace the inner android and get about the business of buying the best haptic goodies we can find.

So onward—to our Virtual Bazaar in which haptic extensions of our brains are available for purchase (or soon will be).

In the consumer realm, two companies dominate the field in the creation of tactile I/O devices: Immersion Corporation and SensAble Technologies. Right now, each seems interested in consolidating a position in the marketplace.

Immersion has acquired more than 240 patents and presents products ranging from consumer electronics to medical simulations. It has defended its intellectual property fiercely, most recently and successfully in a court case against Sony. It claimed that the PlayStation DualShock's vibrating controllers constituted patent infringement and made a good enough court case to be awarded $82 million in the process.

SensAble, which has an impressive list of patents of its own, markets tools for developers who want to create haptic applications. Recognizing the need to consolidate its own market presence, it is sponsoring a contest for developers that should fatten their portfolio of projects.

Sadly, production of usable commercial haptic devices lags well behind the challenging and sometimes quirky work done in university laboratories. Academic research is by its nature open-ended. However, after a developer enters the marketplace with a device or concept, the device has to do something concrete for people (to make them pull out their pocketbooks and fork over the greens). And chief among those consumers willing to pay for any enhancement to their virtually real experience are gamers.

Climbing into a Virtual World

So I asked Andy Clark about computer gaming and how he saw it shaping our human cognitive evolution.

"It's one of the big ways we are learning to get used to new bodies operating in new environments," he told me. "A key tool for a major transition."

Ha! You knew it all along, right? Those at the gaming consoles are the ones who will be able to cope with the upcoming shifting realities. Meanwhile, as you are practicing adjusting to new worlds, it's a good idea to have a strong feel for the virtual road.

There are a slew of haptic mice, joysticks, touchpads, and steering wheels out there (and have been for years), but those who buy them have frequently been dissatisfied that so little game software supports haptic hardware. To get around this issue, some developers link the peripheral to the sound card. Devices such as the ABV Vibration Mouse by AVB Technologies, for example, plug right into the sound card.

Many force-feedback devices use a software controller such as Immersion Touchware to smooth out the relationship between the haptic peripheral and the game. The vibration is still linked to the sound card, but the additional software interface allows you to create settings for each game and save the profiles. The Immersion Web site lists more than 20 such gaming devices from several companies that you can count on to be compatible with their software.

Although these alternative manipulators do add the dimension of touch to your gaming, they do not allow you to grasp the gold ring with a reliable hand-hold. For that kind of human-computer interface, you need a sense-extender like the CyberGrasp, a haptic feedback glove that receives force information from the computer, giving you the sense that you are holding, or touching, a virtual object. The glove sends information on your hand movements to the computer as you watch the monitor, and you see these hand movements echoed there, creating a virtual reality you can see and touch. Immersion has been perfecting this product for several years and, most recently, has delivered a wireless version.

That's where the gaming market is these days; the snazzy device that is new today will be polished and fixed for years to come in versions 2.0, 3.1, and 22.17.

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