Portland, Ore. - Countless science fiction books muse about systems that let one person share another's sensory experiences. Now a group at the State University of New York at Buffalo's Virtual Reality Lab is applying the concept in a haptic device for real-world applications.
"Golfers watch Tiger Woods play golf all the time, but it doesn't help them hit the kind of shots he does. But with my device you can feel the exact pressure he puts on the club when he hits. This could really help you play better," said Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of SUNY Buffalo's Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the institution's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Kesavadas performed the work with mechanical-engineering grad student Dhananjay Joshi..
Kesavadas' group is concentrating on such workaday "skill" apps as remote-controlled surgery, where transmitting the sense of touch could enable precise control of a scalpel, and on manufacturing-related pursuits, such as polishing or grinding, that are pressure-sensitive. Kesavadas said, however, that artists, musicians and athletes might equally benefit from experiencing another person's tactile perceptions.
Hand in glove
The data-glove-style "sympathetic" haptic interface senses the pressure being applied by a user to every part of that user's hand and fingers, then broadcasts those feelings over the Internet to other PC users wearing the same type of data glove. An on-screen wire frame showing the orientation of the transmitting user's hand encourages the receiving user to mimic that orientation with his or her own hand to obtain the full effect.
"Our lab routinely uses Phantom, which drags your finger around so you can follow the path of another person's finger as they move it. But our system is the only one available that can communicate what one person feels when they do something in real life," said Kesavadas.
To gauge the realism of the experience achievable with his prototypes, Kesavadas tested subjects by asking them to describe the type of object that the transmitting user was holding. The receiving users were able to distinguish soft, medium and hard objects with nearly 100 percent reliability, Kesavadas said.
Kesavadas' current prototype is still years away from being able to impart all the nuances of a golf swing-after all, it's only transmitting the feelings of a single hand. But Kesavadas' main aim is to help skilled professionals.
Toward that end, the group hopes to begin recording the experiences of others for playback at any time from an online library. By cataloging the professional experiences of others, Kesavadas hopes to enable the possibility of canned, yet personalized, training sessions.
"In the future we want to replay instructional sessions so that students can sign on to experience them as many times as they want. It would be almost like one-on-one training-something that would be very useful for training physical-therapy technicians, for instance," said Kesavadas.
Kesavadas and Joshi plan to unveil their study formally this fall at the International Mechanical Engineering Congress, which is scheduled to take place in Washington on Nov. 15-21.