The flotor is suspended inside a larger sphere by electromagnets, and its position is monitored by optical sensors.   (Source: Carnegie Mellon University)

Demonstrators show off how the device is used to control a small cube trapped inside a larger cube (top), and 3D objects in a larger playfield.  (Source: Carnegie Mellon University/DailyTech)
Will we have floating, force-feedback enabled joysticks in our future?

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.

A press 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.

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