Imagine stepping into a game booth outfitted with sensors that enable you to feel what it's like to walk on the surface of Mars. Or, turning on your computer to see live video of your new grandchild across the country and being able, by wearing gloves with special sensors, to feel you're actually touching the baby.Skip to next paragraph
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Scientists are in the early stages of research that could lead to applications that will literally take the Internet out of this world and make it more intimate for users through the sense of touch.
For example, researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York recently developed an experimental glove that can send the sense of touch over the Internet. While its functions still are limited, its creators hope it could one day be used to let designers, sculptors, or doctors in distant locations collaborate.
At the same time, scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are expanding network and sensing technologies so that eventually planets and a variety of devices in space can communicate with one another, with astronomers on Earth, and even with consumers in both educational and game settings.
"As far as we know, our technology is the only way a person can communicate to another person the sense of touch," says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of the University of Buffalo's Virtual Reality Lab.
Known as "sympathetic haptics" because it gives one person the ability to feel what another feels, the technology is still years away from being able to transmit the feeling of Tiger Woods's golf swing to another person, for instance.
Now, Dr. Kesavadas and his team are able to transmit the sensation of touching a soft or hard object, and the contour of certain shapes. They accomplished this by using a special glove with sensors in a thimble-like device at the tip of the fingers.
It is linked by hardware and software between two personal computers via the Internet, so touch data, converted into sophisticated mathematical algorithms, can be transmitted from one person feeling an object to a person at another computer.
Kesavadas likens the technological advance to guiding a child's hand in writing.
"If I hold a child by the hand and move it, I'm merely dragging the hand," he said. "But I'm not teaching writing, because I'm not relaying an understanding of the force needed to write down something. With our technology, you can do and feel, which leads to learning. That's a crucial difference."
He added that touch is relayed more quickly to the brain than hearing or sight. For example, a person standing in a crowd is likely to respond faster to a tap on the shoulder than to someone's voice. So far, however, visual and audio have been used more often on computers, partly because capturing and processing data on the sense of touch is more difficult.
Although sophisticated applications of Internet touch are years away, Kesavadas expects simpler applications to appear in the game industry in three to four years. "There's no reason why someone couldn't make a game in a few years that would cost $400 to $500," he says - about double the cost of today's most popular electronic games. "I also can think of one day when a child might be able to 'reach' out of a computer and touch his or her parents," he says.