Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Another Tour Around The Holodeck

First things first. Here's a link to a post I wrote a few weeks ago on advances in haptics technology, and how we're edging ever closer to the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'll sum haptics up this way (keep in mind, this is not the official definition): haptics uses computer technology to make you feel things that aren't really there, or feel things differently than they actually are. It's a virtual reality type of fooling the senses, but haptics involves the sense of touch. I know this is a little challenging, but read the original post to get yourself up to speed. Wait, let me clarify. When I say up to speed, I mean up to my speed, which is about 2.5 miles per hour. I do not pretend to have any real insight into this whole field. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I didn't even know there was such a field, at least one that wasn't imaginary. Did you? Well, there is, and it's starting to grow some pretty interesting crops.

Last time, I wrote briefly about an article by Duncan Graham-Rowe, examining the work of Dr. Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre, founder of the International Society for Haptics, who has developed ways to create physical illusions, like the feeling that you are running your hand over something sharp, or pointy, when you really just have your finger inside a thimble, attached to a computerized mechanical arm, which applies pressure to fool your mind into "feeling" different shapes. Confused? Well, here's the nifty part that led me to address this topic again so soon. I got an email today from Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre, with all sorts of links to help us understand his work better. I admit, I never expected such a smart person to be so helpful, and to voluntarily go out of his way to provide us with more information. "Really smart people" are supposed to be aloof and far above us all. I'm glad to be wrong, and also really glad to get all those links to follow up. It really has helped me to understand some more of what the doctor, and others working in the same field, are accomplishing.

I'll just list the links and where they lead. I've followed them all this morning, and done a fair bit of reading now, and I can assure you that the information is really helpful for understanding how sensory illusion can be created, and, more basically, how important the sense of touch is to our interaction with the world. It's not just dry reading, either. I really found everything I saw and read fascinating:

1) A demo of computer haptics. This is a short visual demonstration, but will help you get your head around the ideas.

2) A demo to help us understand what some illusory objects feel like. Be sure and read the text.

3) An article that discusses some related, earlier work with more illusory cases. The doctor explained to me that the technology goes beyond what I originally wrote about creating the illusion: "The cases mentioned in the article are even more surprising. It is possible to actually touch a combined real and virtual object and have our perception of the real object changed by the virtual one."

4) A broader article on why touch is important (but frequently misunderstood and underrated.) This article is amazing. Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre tells the story of Mr. Waterman, a man who permanently lost his sense of touch from the collarline down, and how he had to learn to control his body completely through visual reference. It's really an incredible tale. The doctor explains all the ways that we rely on touch information to function in the world, and how the lessons learned from Mr. Waterman relate to virtual environments. Read this one, if you can. For me it was a totally new look at the sense of touch, and gave me a new appreciation for its importance. God knew what he was doing when he gave us all five senses.

5) The good doctor also invited me (and thus, you) to keep up with the latest on haptics. Guess how? He's got a blog!! He calls it a newslog, which is much more legit sounding, but I'm a little more plebeian than that, so, a blog it is.

I hope you enjoy the opportunity to explore this subject some more. Anyone who reads the Meow much knows that I just eat this stuff up, and then ask for dessert. The world is an amazing place, and the accomplishments of people like Dr. Robles-De-La-Torre make it even more so. I'm looking forward to seeing where this research into haptic technology will lead us. There are exciting applications on the horizon, especially medical ones. Wouldn't it be great if surgeons could practice a procedure over and over with a haptic interface, before they ever took a scalpel to a real live human patient? What other precise and dangerous work will we one day be able to practice in realistic virtual environments? Will I ever be able to take a virtual vacation to the Moon? Will I ever be able to take a real vacation to the Moon? All of these questions have answers that are just around the corner. I'll be checking in on the doctor's world from time to time to see how close we're getting to the holodeck.