Imagine that you have the ability to feel an object, its geometry, texture, and hardness, without actually physically touching the object. Suppose you are feeling the object over a very long distance. Is this possible? There is research in the works developing such capabilities. The device is called an electronic tactile display, often called a tactile rendering device.
The purpose of this device will be to reproduce the mentioned sensations using high, and short duration bursts of voltage delivered to the sensing nerves located, in this case, under the skin on the index fingertip. This is the finger that the user will put on a matrix of electrodes to experience the feeling of a physical object that is being measured by a force sensor.
The force sensor maps forces it experiences by using optical principles that map local deformations to pixel intensity. The hope is that if the tactile display device is properly calibrated, and the object characterized accurately, it will be possible to use algorithms to mimic the sensation of this object that is being measured and display it to the user on the device over long distances.
Why would anyone want to use a device like this? It has a potential usefulness in both the medical and auto industries. In the medical realm, it will give doctors a way of palpating tissues without physically being at the patient’s location.
For instance giving a female a breast examination sometimes requires the doctor to palpate the breast to locate denser nodules of tissue that could be malignant. If the doctor cannot be at the location, then the palpating device could be hooked up to the robot hand, and the physician could operate the robot’s hand from afar. The physician could then get feedback from the different textures that the sensor measures by placing his fingers on the array of electrodes on his end that mimic the sensation.
The device may help with car seat quality. If we know how to characterize and reproduce the texture pattern, hardness, softness, and contour of leather in a computer simulation, then developers can try out different car seats without having to produce multiple samples. Instead, the samples could be felt via the electronic tactile display. This could add up to large cost savings.
There are many more potential applications for this area of research. The electronic tactile device has a bright future. The technology is here, it only needs to be refined.