Computers — long used as tools to design and manipulate 3-D objects — may soon provide people with a way to sense the texture of those objects or feel how they fit together. Carnegie Mellon's Ralph Hollis, a research professor in the university's Robotics Institute, developed a haptic — or "touch-based" — interface to give users a highly realistic experience.
Unlike most other haptic interfaces that rely on motors and mechanical linkages to provide some sense of touch or force feedback, Hollis' device uses magnetic levitation and a single moving part. Users can perceive textures, feel hard contacts and notice even slight changes in position, while using an interface that responds rapidly to movements.
"We believe this device provides the most realistic sense of touch of any haptic interface in the world today," said Hollis, whose research group built a working version of the device in 1997.
With the help of a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant, he and his colleagues have improved its performance, enhanced its ergonomics and lowered its cost. The grant also enabled them to build 10 copies, six of which are being distributed to haptic researchers across the United States and Canada.
"We have gone from the prototype to a much more advanced system that other researchers can use," Hollis said.
Putting the instrument in the hands of other researchers is critical in a young, developing field such as haptic technology, he emphasized. Though haptic interfaces have uses in engineering design, entertainment, assembly, remote operation of robots, and in medical and dental training, their full potential has yet to be explored. That's particularly the case for magnetic levitation haptic interfaces because so few have been available for use by researchers, he added.
"This is an affordable device that's also practical," said Hollis, who has started a spinoff company to build additional devices. "Now other people can have this technology, and this represents technology transfer in the very real sense."
Six devices will be delivered to researchers at Harvard, Stanford, Purdue and Cornell, as well as the universities of Utah and British Columbia. All are members of the Magnetic Levitation Haptic Consortium, an international group dedicated to fostering increased use of this technology.