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Touch tomorrow: Haptic technology is changing the world

Rich McEachran

Credit: Ultrahaptics
Credit: Ultrahaptics

Engineers are building a sense of touch into their inventions. Rich McEachran gets a feel for haptic technology, which is being used for everything from learning medical procedures to skipping tracks on a car stereo

When Paul Murphy trained as a dentist in the late 1990s, he practised tooth extractions on a mannequin with plastic teeth, and oral injections on rubber.

“When you’re working with a material like rubber you do experience the tensions of putting a needle in, pulling it out and how the skin would snag,” he says. “What you don’t get is feedback. For instance, when you’re working with plastic teeth, there’s no blood trickling out to let you know when you’ve applied too much pressure.”

These ‘phantom heads’ are still used by dentistry students, but with the help of haptic technology they can enhance the development of the dexterity and skill required for injecting and drilling during oral surgery.

Business potential

The haptics industry is set to be worth $19.55 billion (£14.88 billion) by 2022, according to a trends report published at the end of 2016 by market data company Research and Markets. It’s widely expected that the technology will drastically change the way we live and experience the world, both inside and outside the home, from kitchen appliances to clothing to transport.

At King’s College London, dental trainees have been using the hapTEL workstation since 2008. It’s a virtual learning platform with a real drill, attached to a modified gaming device and a foot pedal to control the drill’s speed setting. The workstation lets the user feel the difference between drilling enamel and decaying tooth, so they can improve their understanding of how much pressure to apply.

One of the researchers who helped develop the hapTEL system is Alastair Barrow. He has since gone on to co-found a spin-off company, Generic Robotics, which is currently working on an oral injection simulator called SimuTeach. Barrow says that using a combination of haptics and virtual reality has many advantages, including the ability to provide instant analysis and to enable trainee dentists to practise a task an unlimited number of times.

“By training with this technology, users can recreate and repeat a clinical technique with realistic touch sensations in a safe environment until they get it right,” he adds. “They can also gain extra insight that wouldn’t be possible in reality. An example of this is that the injection simulator will allow a user to hide the virtual skin and muscle, so they can see precisely where the nerves they’re targeting are positioned.”

Dentistry isn’t the only medical profession that will benefit from haptics – Barrow says it is likely to be adopted by surgeons to practise operations including appendectomies. This will be aided by 5G and the creation of a ‘tactile internet’, a controlled environment where objects will be managed and serviced remotely with a millisecond response time. For surgeons, it could mean more accurate diagnoses and the ability to perform operations without being present in the room.

But haptics isn’t just about recreating real sensations. Touch can be much more powerful than that.

Almost like the real thing... injecting life-like sensations into dental training (Credit: Generic Robotics)
Almost like the real thing... injecting life-like sensations into dental training (Credit: Generic Robotics)

Communicating with the skin

At Bristol-based start-up Ultrahaptics, the team has developed a way to project touch sensations through the air, so users can feel virtual buttons and switches and interact with objects and appliances in mid-air.

“It’s entirely possible that touch-free controllers and surfaces will become as ubiquitous as touchscreens,” says Heather Macdonald Tait, who heads up communications at Ultrahaptics and can often be seen representing the company at conferences, speaking on the subject with much passion. “The technology has the potential to revolutionise how we interact with the digital world and free us from simply looking at a small glass rectangle,” she says.

The problem with receiving audio or visual feedback as we do currently is that it’s not tactile or intuitive, says Macdonald Tait. Touch, on the other hand, has been proven to be processed 1.7 times faster by the brain. Haptics is more instinctive and reactive, and this has big advantages, particularly when it comes to safety.

Earlier this year, Ultrahaptics announced a partnership with Harman International Industries, which provides solutions to the automotive industry, to develop a system to control multiple in-vehicle functions, such as radio volume, using hand gestures.

Previously, haptic technology has been used by Chevrolet to develop a safety alert seat that vibrates to warn the driver when there is risk of a crash. Meanwhile, the German engineering firm Bosch has developed an accelerator pedal that vibrates when a vehicle is speeding. But up until now, vehicle infotainment systems have been overlooked.

“Changing the volume or radio station using analogue knobs and dials can be a distraction. Providing feedback onto a hand allows the driver to concentrate on the road and make commands at the same time,” says Donald Butts, strategy director at Harman. “The system uses an array of ultrasonic transducers, similar to audio beam-forming, to create complex sound fields that are inaudible but can project sensations.”

The success of haptics will rest on how well it is able to fit seamlessly into our lives, and whether it can make it easier to perform a task and receive information. While in-vehicle use of haptics is maturing, Butts recognises that uptake might be slow to begin with. He says that drivers are conditioned to receive audible and visual feedback and it may take some time for them to adjust, and eventually switch, to the new technology.

Controlling in-car infotainment system with hand gestures (Credit: Harman International Industries)
Controlling in-car infotainment system with hand gestures (Credit: Harman International Industries)

Design for accessibility  

For haptic technology to truly have an impact on our future, it needs to be inclusive and designed to be universally accessible.

Macdonald Tait says that, with the right gesture control solution, unsteady hand movements, as experienced by people with Parkinson’s for instance, won’t detract from a user’s ability to control a device. However, it’s those who are blind or partially sighted and those who are deaf or hard of hearing who are most likely to benefit from using their sense of touch.

Ultimately, receiving information and feedback using haptics is a logical step in the evolution of technology. “Touch is something we take for granted in everyday life, because it’s ever present,” says Macdonald Tait. “But we only need to watch a baby or small child reaching out to explore the world with their fingertips to see how important it is to help the brain build its library of experiences.”

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