Mel Slater, a professor of computer science and an expert in virtual reality, has researched the creation of elaborate VR worlds which closely reflect the feeling and experiences we are acquainted with in real life. Having created realistic visual and auditory experiences, the next challenge was to create a convincing sense of touch.
Stemming from an earlier collaboration with the MIT Touch Lab in 1998, the UCL team have been working in developing software for a HAPTIC interface, a device which simulates touch, over network paths of extremely long distances. The MIT/UCL "hand shake" will traverse a distance of over 3000 miles, the first time this will ever have been publicly demonstrated.
The experiment, if successful, will see whether two subjects in Boston and London can manipulate and move a cube. The subjects, although thousands of miles apart, will feel the force that the other exerts and will have to work co-operatively to manipulate it across a visual virtual environment.
The feeling of touch comes through a pencil-like device called a PHANToM which sends small impulses at very high frequencies of up to 1000Hz down the Internet. The impulse frequencies need to be very high to "imitate" convincingly the sense of touch. In much the same way that the brain re-interprets still images into moving pictures, the frequencies received by the phantom are similarly integrated to produce the sense of a continuous sensation. The problem for the team was to reduce the element of delay or latency in sending large chunks of data down the Internet and receiving it promptly at the other end.
Internet2, the second generation of Internet technologies, with its fibre optic cabling and higher bandwidths will allow the team to send large amounts of data between the United States and Great Britain with minimal delay. It will also match the rapid speed of updating information required to deliver a genuine sense of touch.
Speaking on the eve of the experiment, Professor Slater stated: "A PHANToM is a device which looks rather like a pen which you can slide across a surface in a VR world. You can feel its texture and density. Pushing on the pen sends data representing forces through the Internet which can be interpreted by a PHANToM and therefore felt on the other end. You can not only feel the resulting force, but you can also get a sense of the quality of the object you are feeling, whether it is soft or hard, wood like or fleshy."
Professor Slater continued: "We have been interested in making the interactions between people in a VR world as real as possible and clearly touch was a means by which you could enhance the sense of them feeling more together. Working with colleagues at MIT, we developed the idea of seeing whether two phantoms connected over the Internet could create the effect of two fingers touching. If successful, this will be the first time that two phantoms have been used to touch a human rather than a virtual object."
"The applications of this technique, if it succeeds, are vast. There are possible applications in telemedicine and training for designers, artists, and architects. Tasks requiring manual dexterity could be rehearsed in advance of executing them. It enhances the sense of being together even though the physical distances involved are vast."
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