When one thinks of haptic interfaces – that is, computer
interfaces based on touch and feel – many think of the vibration
features in modern joysticks and gamepads. Researchers at the
Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, however, think way
beyond that, and recently began distributing copies of a new,
levitating force-feedback computer interface to fellow researchers
around the country.
The interface itself – a floating, bowl-shaped device controlled
by a handle the user grabs – is magnetically suspended inside a
larger, open-faced main shell. When gripped by a user, it grants a
full six dimensions of movement, while responding to the
force-feedback output of the computer. A video produced by Carnegie
Mellon researchers shows users manipulating a small cube trapped
inside another, larger cube: responding appropriately when the small
cube collides with the larger cube’s walls, and allowing users to
push, pull, twist, and flip the small cube with relative ease.
Another video segment shows a different user using two maglev
interfaces to manipulate a series of simple geometric objects around
a 3D playfield.
release issued by Carnegie Mellon indicates that a computer reads
the interface’s movements using a series of optical sensors, which
then feeds the data to 3D object in question. To convey haptic data,
the computer sends signals back to the device’s electromagnetic
coils, controlling the movement of the flotor. “We believe this
device provides the most realistic sense of touch of any haptic
interface in the world today,” said research professor Ralph
Hollis, whose team developed the device.
Currently unnamed, the device has been in development for over 11
years, with an initial prototype successfully built in 1997. Now,
armed with the assistance of a $300,000 grant from the National
Science Foundation, Hollis says he intends to make the device more
widely available. Grant funds allowed Hollis and his team to build 10
copies, distributing six of them to researchers at Harvard, Stanford,
Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Utah and British Columbia.
Hollis says he also started a spinoff company to further
commercialize the interface, noting that it carries a strong
potential in a wide variety of fields. Hong Tan, an associate
professor who studies human perception of fine surface textures, says
the device is “beyond the capability of most commercially available
haptic devices … the maglev device developed by Dr. Hollis will
make it possible for us to continue [our] research.”
“Now other people can have this technology, and this represents
technology transfer in the very real sense,” says Hollis.
The device will be formally unveiled at the IEEE 16th Symposium on
Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environments and Teleoperator Systems,
to be held on March 13-14 in Reno, Nevada.