As aural and visual learning tools, the internet and its vast array of multimedia applications are fast becoming unparalleled classroom resources. Now, a new technology is emerging that would add touch to this list of features, enabling students to feel with their hands what they see on the web.

Thanks to an evolving concept called sympathetic haptics, the slogan “reach out and touch someone” is no longer just a crafty advertising gimmick. Researchers at the University of Buffalo (UB) in New York claim they’ve developed a unique system that enables one person to experience the sense of touch felt by another across the internet.

The technology has obvious implications for distance education and skills training, where art instructors at a university in California could share with students sitting in a classroom in Maine what it feels like to sculpt the human form from a wad of clay, for instance–or doctors and scientists could use the technology in science labs to emulate the pressure applied to organs during dissections, critical disease diagnoses, and other surgical procedures.

“Sympathetic haptics has tremendous potential for changing the way we perform distance learning,” said Thenkurussi Kesavadas, who heads up UB’s Virtual Reality Laboratory. “Before, you could only see it. You couldn’t actually feel it. This kind of technology is going to bring that old experiential effect to multimedia systems.”

An associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Kesavadas likened his work in sympathetic haptics to replicating the amount of pressure a person applies to a pen during handwriting. After recording the unique motion of the hand strokes and the precise force applied to the pen itself, researchers would beam this information across the web, thus enabling different users to reconstruct the exact thickness of the lines and produce near-flawless handwritten replicas.

On one end of the two-way system, instructors who want to communicate their sense of touch to students are outfitted with a futuristic glove that records and stores different sensory outputs, including physical resistance, force, and movement, then sends these recordings in real time across the internet to the learner on the other end.

The learner receives the data by way of a unique haptic device that enables him or her to feel and emulate the movements and resistance applied by the instructor.

The haptic device used by the UB researchers is called Phantom. Developed by Sensable Technologies Inc., a Japanese firm specializing in touch-based applications, the computer-adapted Phantom resembles a robotic arm with a pen attached to its wrist.

As sensory information is received over the internet, the student takes hold of the pen-shaped device and is guided electronically over a shape or object projected on a computer monitor. As this tracing effect occurs, the arm pushes and pulls with the same amount of force or resistance applied by the instructor on the opposite end of the technology.

So far, Kesavadas and his team have been successful in emulating the amount of pressure applied to a sponge and also have been able to convey the consistency of hard and soft objects.

Researchers foresee the use of haptics in a wide array of practical applications, from medical procedures to batting or golf practice.

Imagine being able to recreate the subtle touch and exact force of pro golfer Phil Mickelson’s putting stroke from various distances, for example; with haptics, this idea–while ahead of its time–has entered the realm of possibility.

“The application is left to the imagination of the person using it,” Kesavadas said.

“We are creating a new medium of communication between two people,” said Dhananjay Joshi, a graduate research assistant who works on the project. “This is kind of a breakthrough in that you are able to share the haptic experience with a new person.”

Researchers at Buffalo were not the first to break ground on the field of haptics. According to Kesavadas, the study of touch technology has evolved rapidly over the past eight years.

Most video game enthusiasts today are already familiar with interactive controllers that vibrate and shake as digital characters from high-tech worlds dodge bullets and leap from the path of deadly explosions on their way to seeking virtual justice.

At TACHI Laboratory at the University of Tokyo in Japan, researchers created a similar technology called SmartTouch, a haptic system based on electrical stimulation to convert sensed information into skin sensations.

The fingertip-fitted device is composed of a thin electro-tactile display and a sensor mounted on skin, so the user not only can make physical contact with objects, but also can enhance the physical sensation of touch.

None of these applications boasts the same potential for usefulness in the classroom as the more recent sympathetic devices, which enable a sense of touch to be communicated between two people across the internet. But as with any breakthrough technology, there remains the problem of price.

Bowen Loftin, executive director of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, said the real problem with haptics today isn’t that the technology is too advanced for the classroom, it’s simply that it costs too much.

For instance, the Phantom device used by researchers at Buffalo reportedly cost $15,000. And Loftin said some haptic output devices can cost as much as $60,000.

At a time when K-12 schools and universities across the nation are struggling to make do with limited financial resources, these prices make haptics sound more like lofty dream machines than realistic learning tools.

Loftin, who has worked for years to develop virtual reality tools for use in the classroom, is no stranger to the ruin high prices can have on good scientific concepts. It doesn’t matter how well the technology works if no one’s buying, he said: “Right now, the technology really is too expensive at either end. It really comes down to finding something that can address a mass market.”

Another barrier, Loftin pointed out, is safety. People often are leery of the risks associated with attaching their body to a machine, he said. Before the technology finds its way into the larger marketplace, it first will have to demonstrate its reliability and overall dependency through more diligent research and testing.

Still, the technology has potential. Like Kesavadas, Loftin believes that sympathetic haptics could have a lasting impact on laboratory exercises and training for the arts, as well as courses for the visually impaired. However, the market isn’t likely to feel this impact for another five to 10 years, he said.

Kesavadas said he knows the technology isn’t likely to catch on overnight. But that hasn’t stopped researchers at Buffalo from developing a spinoff company, called Tactus Technologies, to market their concepts.

The researchers are in the process of securing a patent for their haptic data glove and said they hope to have a design on the market within the next three-and-a-half years.

Kesavadas said Tactus will sell its concepts to educational software providers in hopes that they will develop applications deemed more suitable for classroom use.

Right now, he said, online education involves primarily visual learning and lacks the sense of feel that can be gained by going to a lab. With haptics, he said, all that could change one day.

See these related links:

University of Buffalo

UB Virtual Reality Laboratory

Sensable Inc.

TACHI Laboratory (University of Tokyo)