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The Sensual Computer: High Touch, High-Tech

October 9, 2000 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - How does your computer feel today? No, I'm not asking about its state of cybernetic health but about whether it's giving you any tactile feedback or manipulative capability through your fingers. Touch is the latest to be added to the list of human senses a computer can address. It's called haptics, from the Greek haptesthai, meaning to grasp or touch.
One consistent thread in the development of computing is the continuing expansion of I/O capabilities. In the beginning, you input data into a computer by flipping switches, and its output was in the form of flashing lights. As the technology developed, input came from punch cards, paper tape, magnetic tape and keyboards, while output became human-readable words and numbers on paper or a display screen. Voice input and text-to-speech reading are still in the development phase, and it looks as though haptics may be the next big thing after that.
The earliest haptic devices for computers were braille readers. With them, a blind user can move his finger along a line of metal pins that form a braille representation of the current on-screen line of text. Although they're very useful, these devices are limited to rendering text.
There are now a few more devices that use haptic technology. Among the earliest, developed a few years ago, were joysticks and similar gaming controls that employed force feedback, offering varying resistance to movement, depending on what was happening on-screen.
The newest devices are haptic mice from Fremont, Calif.-based Logitech Inc. that use a vibration-generating motor to simulate different surface textures and materials. They're relatively simple and inexpensive, employing new technology from Immersion Corp. in San Jose. More than just a frill or a thrill, "the addition of tactile feedback to computer mice can significantly enhance user performance," says Jack Dennerlein, assistant professor of ergonomics at Harvard University. "Our laboratory studies show that people complete basic cursor-targeting tasks faster with tactile feedback."
But there are more sophisticated haptic tools available. Perhaps the best-known is the Phantom from SensAble Technologies Inc. in Woburn, Mass. This device employs a moving arm that ends in a stylus for the user to hold or a thimble into which the user inserts a finger. These are used in conjunction with software called the FreeForm Modeling System.
As the user moves the device's arm, a cursor moves around the screen. Using the device, if one encounters a "solid" object in the on-screen universe, the arm is stopped. Moving along a surface provides tactile information about the surface's texture, and the user can readily and intuitively

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