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The Internet's ghost touch
By Raja M

MUMBAI - The sense of touch can now be transmitted through the Internet. In August, Thenkurussi Kesavadas and his fellow Indian colleague Dhananjay Joshi announced the latest breakthrough in haptics, the science of simulating touch in a development that is expected to impact telemedicine, communications and the entertainment industry. This projected $1 billion business in haptics gadgets could let us experience what another person feels continents away. The implications are profound, including obviously getting the Internet's thriving pornography merchants excited.

Touch sensations could be recorded for future playback, just as music and movies are preserved. Kesavadas, associate professor at the American University of Buffalo, told Asia Times Online, "Our development, termed Sympathetic Haptics, allows capturing and transmitting of accurate force sensations felt by one subject to another person while performing a wide range of tasks, from simple touching to playing musical instruments." Their technology, costing upwards of US$250,000 to develop, tested with an 80 percent success rate.

Using Kesavadas's data glove, physicians could examine the organs of patients sitting continents apart - or a Tiger Woods coaching class over the Internet could include being able to feel his grip on the golf club.

"You could watch Tiger Woods play golf all day long and not be able to make the kind of shots he makes," Kesavadas explains. "But if you were able to feel the exact pressure he puts on the club when he putts, you could learn to be a better putter."

Kesavadas says that the new development means we could actually feel what another person is feeling, and not merely feel what the other person is doing as earlier haptics technologies allowed. "The subtle but significant difference is in being able to experience the actual sensation of someone else writing, instead of feeling our hand being dragged around in forced writing movement," he says.

"You can't teach something to somebody by forcing their movements," Kesavadas said, ranking the sense of touch as a vital input in learning. "With our technology you can do and feel, which leads to learning. That's a crucial difference."

The difference could plug a critical gap in fields like telemedicine. Earlier haptics-based programs struggled because physicians could not feel the pulse of faraway patients. Kesavadas says his innovation allows doctors to diagnose through the Internet, to be able to feel and check a patient's organs for injury or disease. "Cyber visits to your family doctor are now a real possibility," Kesavadas said. "In addition, this technology could bring experienced medical hands to large rural areas of countries like India."

Kesavadas and his Mumbai-born assistant Joshi built on a revolutionary technology that made news three years ago - through some monkey business. In December 2000, monkeys in North Carolina operated a robotic arm in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Touch Lab 600 miles away. The monkey's brain signals did the action. Ninety-six tiny electrodes had been implanted in the cortex area of the monkeys' brains, including the motor cortex that regulates movement. Neuron signals recording every movement were computer-analyzed.

Two years later, on November 1, 2002, humans caught up with the monkeys. Scientists in London and at Massachusetts "felt" each other moving a cube in 3D space in the Internet, from their respective offices across the Atlantic.

The haptic feedback happened through PHANToM, a small robotic arm that scientists developed at MIT. PHANToM pushes high frequency impulses from one person to another through the Internet. The person at either end feels the effect of the other's touch. When a person using the PHANToM arm moved a cube in a 3D room created on the Internet, the other person felt the pressure exerted on the cube. They could lift the virtual object together and feel its texture. One science writer witnessing the experiment was so startled at the realistic feel of the transatlantic touch that he leapt back in shock.

The director of MIT's Touch Lab, Mandayam Srinivasan, who headed the haptics research, was unsure of the full implications of such technology. Srinivasan pointed out neither did Graham Bell anticipate all the applications for the telephone when he invented it 126 years ago. Kesavadas's innovation uses the PHANToM arm for force-feedback replay.

Kesavadas, Joshi and Srinivasan are among Asian scientists such as Hiroo Iwata and Hiroaki Yano of the University of Tsukuba, Japan, in the forefront of haptics research. Japan, with Sony Corporation, seven universities and two governmental organizations, has been involved in haptics research since the 1980s. India, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are other Asian countries with continuing haptics programs.

Like Sony in entertainment, the communication industry has begun investing in haptics. In June this year, the Finland-based MyOrigo launched "Mydevice", calling it "the first motion-controlled smartphone". According to MyOrigo, Mydevice lets consumers use the Internet in a "completely intuitive way". The Mydevice screen adjusts according to the user's hand movements. We could flick open online documents with the same hand movement as turning a book page. Or we can tip the screen like a mirror and see corners of documents.

MyOrigo claims its device was a big hit with network operators and handset manufacturers. With its Spanish associate Telefonia, MyOrgio announced major plans for European markets in the near future. The device, powered with the "intent" multimedia software platform from the Tao Group, is expected to hit Britain this autumn.

"Similar hand-held tactile and haptics devices like MyOrgio have been tested in lab environment for some time now [such as tactile feedback PDAs]," says Kesavadas. "I would characterize Logitech and Microsoft [force feedback joystick] in the same category because of their success with low-cost, mass-produced haptics products."

One hurdle, Kesavadas admits, is the cost factor. A force feedback device could need $16,000 to $45,000 to change ownership. "But when the cost comes down," Kesavadas expects, "this technology will become more prevalent in training and industrial environments. Asian businesses, which are very progressive in adopting new technology, will be eager to make good commercial haptics products."

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Sep 6, 2003


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