Touch: a step closer to virtual reality

Touch The desktop haptic device is linked to a computer. By moving the pen you can 'touch' objects on the computer screen.

Dr Andrew Day and Mr Stephen Laycock.
University of East Anglia

Imagine being able to actually feel something in a three-dimensional (3D) virtual environment, to have the sensation of touching what you see on a computer screen. Well you can and Andrew Day and Stephen Laycock from the University of East Anglia are making this experience even more realistic.

'Primitive forms of sensory feedback already exist in gaming, such as controllers that vibrate when you crash a car in a game', explains Andrew. 'But what we are attempting is far more complex'.

Andrew and Stephen are working on sensory feedback from flexible devices or tools. Currently, systems exist where you can probe virtual 3D images with tools and receive sensory feedback as you touch other objects on the screen. These systems are used to train surgeons or dentists for example. A big drawback, however, is that the tools are rigid, unlike tools that you use in reality. 'A scalpel used in surgery or a dental probe would bend as it impacts the skin or tooth', explains Andrew, 'providing quite a different sensation in the hand of the user'.

The sensory signals we receive through our hands as we carry out daily activities are taken for granted. However, without correct feedback to our brains about the pressure in our fingers as we lifted a glass, we would either crush it or let it slip through our hands.

In the virtual 3D environment, the forces you would expect to feel as you touch an object on the computer screen are fed back to you via a desktop 'haptic' device. This device consists of a pen that you hold, attached to a robotic arm with motors located in the base. The device is linked to a standard computer, and you move the pen to move your 3D tool and 'touch' objects on the computer screen.

When contact is made with an object, the computer works out the necessary force to stop the tool from penetrating the object.