Major Developments in Haptic Technology

Recent advances in scientific research may allow robotic prostheses and virtual reality simulations to be more effective than ever before. Researchers in Hong Kong have developed a new glove-like technology that not only allows users to experience sensations in their hands when interacting with virtual objects, but also customizes the intensity of the sensations according to the sensitivity levels of the person’s nerves.

Haptic technology is defined as a technology that relies on computer-generated forces, vibrations, or motions to provide people with an artificial sense of touch. This technology, along with virtual reality, has become more important in the medical field over the past decade. Not only are surgeons relying on virtual reality to perform surgeries, but haptic technology can dramatically improve the lives of amputees with robotic prostheses. In recent years, researchers have found that robotic prostheses with the ability to provide patients with an artificial sense of touch significantly reduce the mental effort required to operate the prosthesis. An artificial sense of touch can improve patients’ overall ability to control prostheses.

While scientists have developed haptic technology for clinical application in the past, previous attempts have often been bulky, inconvenient to use, and not customizable to each user.

Now, researchers have developed a The new iteration of touch technology It includes an ultra-thin glove-like technology called WeTac. WeTac contains numerous electrodes throughout the glove’s body and provides electrical feedback to users to induce tactile sensations throughout their hands. Not only does this technology have the potential to improve the outcomes of robotic surgeries, but it is an important development in touch technology that can also be applied to people with disabilities and those with prostheses.

The WeTac’s first design challenge was to create a design that could simulate the dynamic and changing sensations people get when using their hands.

Consider trying to shake the person’s hand. You may only feel the handshake in certain areas of your palm or fingers. These areas of contact may change as you progress through their handshake motions. Your fist pressure or grip may also change. Moreover, some areas of our hands are inherently more sensitive to touch than others. The feelings we experience in our hands are very dynamic even for something as basic as shaking hands with another person.

The goal of Yao et al. It is a haptic glove design that captures these dynamic sensations when users interact with virtual objects. To do this, the WeTac is designed with 32 electrodes spanning the surface of the palm and fingers. This will allow the researchers to adjust the intensity of the electrical signals at 32 different points in the hand and allow them to create a more precise sense of touch throughout the hand.

The use of electrodes to create artificial sensations also enabled Yao et al. To create a WeTac in an incredibly lightweight form. The electrodes have previously been used in thin, wearable devices that can sit directly on the skin without causing any irritation. This makes it ideal for creating a lightweight and comfortable device.

Using electrodes, Yao et al. Electrical currents can occur throughout the hand. The idea was that these electrical currents would activate nerves in a person’s hand, effectively triggering the sense of touch a person might feel from interacting with a physical object. Yao et al. WeTac is designed so that electrical currents can be produced by a blue controller attached to the user’s wrist. This controller will have wireless capabilities and can be controlled using a phone or computer. This will allow WeTac users to move freely.

For device testing, the first step of Yao et al. It was to optimize the WeTac’s electrical stimulation settings according to each participant. The sensitivity levels of people’s hands can vary across populations. For example, men typically show less sensitivity to touch than women. Older people also show reduced sensitivity compared to younger people. For device customization, Yao et al. He measured the average electrical stimulation threshold for each participant and across each of the 32 electrodes in their hands.

As expected, on average, women had lower thresholds for electrical stimulation than men. Younger individuals also showed lower thresholds. The exception to this pattern was that women who showed more calluses on their hands due to their jobs had higher thresholds. In other words, Yao et al. It was found that in addition to gender and age, hand sensitivity can also vary according to a person’s job or daily activities.

After calibrating the WeTac according to each volunteer’s sensitivity levels, Yao et al. They were ready to test a WeTac in a virtual reality simulator. The first simulation involved participants slowly holding a virtual tennis ball and a virtual cactus. This simulation will allow the researchers to determine that WeTac can produce different sensations according to the texture of a static virtual object. After running simulations, the team found that a tennis ball can induce a sensation of gentle touch, while a cactus induces a height sensation that is slightly painful or uncomfortable.

The researchers also tested a simulation where a virtual mouse and pieces of cheese appeared on participants’ hands. The participant would then report the sensations they felt when the virtual mouse traveled across their hand to eat each piece of cheese. This allowed the researchers to determine that the WeTac can also effectively stimulate the sense of touch of a moving, dynamic object.

Overall, this study shows a significant advance in touch technology. As WeTac and other lightweight haptic feedback devices continue to be developed, we may start to see more sophisticated VR technologies and robotic prostheses that use haptic feedback and can improve the outcomes of tele/robot surgeries as well as the lives of amputees.

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