BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Engineers in the Virtual Reality Laboratory at
the University at Buffalo have developed a new technology that
transmits the sensation of touch over the Internet.
The breakthrough could lead to creation of haptic technologies
that convey the sense of touch and would teach users how to master
skills and activities -- such as surgery, sculpture, playing the
drums or even golf -- that require precise application of "touch"
and movement, says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of UB's Virtual
Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace
engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied
"As far as we know, our technology is the only way a person can
communicate to another person the sense of touch he feels when he
does something," says Kesavadas. "We have added an important
dimension to communication of touch sensations."
Though the technology is still a long way from being able to
capture and communicate the complex feel of a perfect golf swing,
Kesavadas and his fellow researchers have successfully used it to
transmit from one person to another over the Internet the sensation
of touching a soft or hard object, and the ability to feel the
contour of particular shapes.
The researchers call their technology "sympathetic haptics,"
which means "having the ability to feel what another person feels,"
Kesavadas says. The technology communicates what another person is
feeling through an active-tracking haptics system linked between
two personal computers.
The system uses a virtual-reality data glove to capture the
hardness or softness of an object being felt by one person. This
feeling is communicated instantaneously to another person seated at
a computer terminal who, using a sensing tool, follows a point on
the computer screen that tracks and transmits the movements and
sensations of what the first person is feeling. The sensations are
transmitted in the form of exerted force and through information
about the position of the objects being touched.
"When the person receiving the sensation matches the movements
of the person feeling the object, he not only understands how the
person moved his hand, but at the same time he feels exactly the
kind of forces the other person is feeling," Kesavadas
He notes that the sensation of touch is the brain's most
effective learning mechanism -- more effective than seeing or
hearing -- which is why the new technology holds so much promise as
a teaching tool.
"You could watch Tiger Woods play golf all day long and not be
able to make the kind of shots he makes, but if you were able to
feel the exact pressure he puts on the club when he putts, you
could learn to be a better putter," Kesavadas says.
Kesavadas and his co-researchers are interested especially in
medical applications for the technology. They are pursuing ways to
communicate to medical students the exact pressure employed by an
expert surgeon as he or she cuts tissue with a scalpel. And they
think the technology could one day be used for medical diagnosis --
allowing a doctor to feel a human organ via the Internet, checking
the organ for injury or disease.
They also are investigating the technology's use for
manufacturing applications that involve touch and pressure, such as
polishing or grinding.
Another benefit of the technology, according to Kesavadas, is
its ability to capture for future replay and continual instruction
the sensation of an activity after it's been transmitted.
"It almost would be like one-on-one training," Kesavadas says.
"You could replay it over and over again. Hospitals could use it to
deliver physical-therapy sessions to patients, for example."
According to Kesavadas, the sympathetic haptics method is better
suited for transmission of touch than are other haptic technologies
that employ "master-slave" or "collaborative" techniques. These
other methods can help guide another person's movements -- when
tracing the shape of an object, for example -- or can enable two
people to complete a simple task together over the Internet, such
as "lifting" an object cooperatively. But they do not truly
transmit the sensation of touch, he says.
"With the other technologies, you're being forced to feel what
the other person is doing, but you're not actually feeling what the
other person is feeling," Kesavadas explains. "If I hold your hand
and force you to write, for example, you'd feel the sensation of
being dragged around, but you wouldn't feel the sensation of
"You can't teach something to somebody by forcing their
movements," he adds. "With our technology you can do and feel,
which leads to learning. That's a crucial difference."
Kesavadas and co-researcher Dhananjay Joshi, a UB mechanical
engineering graduate student, will present the results of their
research at a fall meeting of the International Mechanical
Engineering Congress and R&D Expo in Washington, D.C.