There are plenty of ways to see virtual objects and scenes. LCD screens, head-mounted displays, augmented reality displays, projection mapping and more.
Feeling virtual objects is, at this point in time, neither as advanced nor as widespread in the mainstream as interacting or seeing them. There’s a lot of variation in approach to simulating touch, which all form part of a field known as computer haptics. Gloves, exoskeletons, texture simulating surfaces and more make up the array of tools available today. For a broad overview of haptics, be sure to take a look at our article Getting to Grips With Haptics.
One very interesting approach is that taken by Geomagic’s desktop haptic technology. It should be noted that the actual technology was developed by Sensable Technologies, but they were acquired by Geomagic in 2012.
The haptic devices sold by Geomagic are essentially small robotic arms that sit on your desktop waiting for you to give them a handshake. The end-effector one these devices look like a pen, meant to simulate a variety of tools such as surgical instruments or clay modelling tools. Coupled with the right software, motors in the device push back against your attempts to manipulate the end-effector that coincides with the precise geometry of the virtual objects.
To your sense of touch it feels exactly like touching a pen or other instrument to a real object.
The specific tool being simulated can be modified to many different varieties; syringes, scalpels, drills,etc. For example. a surgeon might train to do a particular operation and the arm will simulate the feeling of that scalpel cutting through different layers of tissue. Without the need for expensive physical simulations or cadavers the surgeon can build up the “muscle memory” required for surgery that can only come from repeated practice.
Haptic devices such as these also allow artist who work in physical media such as clay sculpting to almost effortlessly transition to the digital art world. Creating 3D models using coding and mathematical formulae can be abstract and complex. Now sculpting skills can be directly translated to 3D modelling.
The list of applications are wide, from Geomagic’s own information these are some of the main applications for their haptic technology:
- Robotic Control
- Virtual Assembly
- Collision Detection
- Training and Skills Assessment
- Molecular Modeling
- Nano Manipulation
- 3D Modeling
- Applications for the Visually Impaired
- Entertainment and Virtual Reality
- Consumer Product Design
Using an advanced robotic haptic device such as this isn’t cheap though. The Geomagic Sculpt, a virtual clay modelling system, weighs in at $3900 (US), but this is one order of magnitude less than such systems had costs in previous generation. Perhaps in the near future haptic robotics like Geomagic’s various systems will be affordable enough to find their ways to the desks of professionals, students and educational institutions everywhere.