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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 17:27 GMT
Promise of touch technologies
Takuya Nojima of Tokyo University
Sensor feels the resistance of the oil layer
The surgery of the future could be done using intelligent scalpels that allow surgeons to feel their way through an operation.

Scientists in Japan are developing tools designed to enable people to feel the shape and texture of objects using haptics or touch technologies.

Haptics, from the Greek verb meaning ''to touch,'' is the science of incorporating the sense of feel into computer interfaces.

The technology works by providing digital information about shapes and textures which allows people to feel as if they were handling them directly.

Smart sensor

Takuya Nojima of Tokyo University has developed a working model to show the potential of this research.

His Smart-Tool system allows people to feel the resistance between two surfaces whose boundaries are normally impossible to sense, such as the boundary between oil and water.

The main implication is for surgical operations

Takuya Nojima
"The sensor detects the conductivity of the liquids," says Mr Nojima. "So, if you penetrate the oil layer, the conductivity is zero but in the water, the conductivity increases."

In early experiments, the researchers have used boiled eggs, with the Smart-Tool cutting through the egg white, but stopping when it reached the yolk.

Such projects have strong potential in biochemistry and medicine.

"The main implication is for surgical operations," says Mr Nojima.

If a surgeon used a scalpel enhanced with Smart-Tool technology, the real-time sensor on the blade could sense what kind of tissue it is touching and rely the information back to the doctor.

When the scalpel is close to vital tissues, such as arteries or the heart, the Smart-Tool would sense them and push back against the surgeon's hand.

This is only one use for the technology. Advances in haptics could allow blind people to feel objects that others can see, or allow visitors to a museum website to feel the shape and texture of an ancient object.

Although much of the research in this area is still in its infancy, some experts predict that haptics will soon be as familiar a part of the computer desktop as colour graphics and stereo sound are today.

See also:

25 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
Simulator promises safer surgery
12 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Feeling the virtual force in LA
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