Touch technology

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Reach out and touch someone

"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.

The sensors already are being made by a spinoff company of the lab called Tactus Technologies of Buffalo, N.Y. But Internet technology still must be improved to get a more exact sensation across. Right now, limitations in bandwidth and time lapses cause some data to be lost. The next version of the Internet, Kesavadas says, will be improved to let users feel the softness of fabrics or skin. Adding visual data also helps with the overall sensation of touch.

GWW - Galaxy Wide Web

This technology is exciting to Adriane Hooke, a lead scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is heading the effort to develop networking standards to eventually build an interplanetary Internet that could connect robots, satellites, and all kinds of equipment put into space. His work is part of several space networking projects at NASA, under the umbrella Deep Space Network, a grouping of large antennas in the United States, Spain, and Australia now in place that communicates with spacecraft and conducts scientific investigations.

Dr. Hooke says the concept of "telepresence" will be the "killer application" for the Internet over the next 15 years. "You can have data sent back from a robotic sensor in space and recreate the information in a virtual reality-like environment on Earth, so you could feel like you were roaming around on Mars," he says. For example, a Mars land rover with sensors could relay the feeling of a rock or the planet's surface back to a person on Earth, who in turn could have a virtual-reality experience of being on the surface of Mars. It could even be used in a Cineplex-type environment, where a person pays $6 to be in the virtual environment of Mars, Hooke adds.

The challenges for Internet designers and programmers, such as the lapse in time to send data from one location to another, deepen in space. Data transmission, which often seems instantaneous on Earth, takes about one-eighth of a second to reach the moon, and other planets are minutes or hours away, leaving a greater chance for data transmission errors, says William Weber, head of the Deep Space Network and the Interplanetary Network Directorate. In addition, communication with Earth can take place only at certain times when the Deep Space Network antennas can pick up the signals in the three locations as the planets and other objects pass by in orbit.

"In space, you can't get continuous connectivity like you can with the Internet on Earth," Hooke says. So he and his colleagues are researching a store and forward-type of network whereby data collected 24 hours a day by space robots, for example, could be sent to a satellite continuously, and then stored and downloaded when the Earth antennas are in the right position.

The most recent space launch contained two robotic landers for Mars, which is the major initial target for collecting space data. So far, the robots on Mars all communicate back to Earth independently, but in the next decade, they could be networked to each other as well, Hooke says.

He foresees a day when there might be Internet addresses such as Mars.com. "In 50 to 100 years," Hooke says, "our goal is to make any place in the solar system Internet accessible."

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