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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
Feeling the digital force
Dr Sile O'Modhrain and Ian Oakley of the Palpable Machines Research Group, BBC
Researchers want to enrich our digital experience
In the future, you could feel somebody shake your hand when they call you over on their mobile phone.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, US, are working on extending how we interact with the digital world to include touch.

Among the ideas is incorporating touch technology, called haptics, into mobile phones.

"You could be talking to somebody over a mobile phone and you could squeeze the phone and they would feel some sense of that squeeze at the other end," said Sile O'Modhrain, who heads the Palpable Machines Research Group at MIT's Media Lab Europe in Dublin, Irish Republic.

Rich experience

The idea behind haptic technology is to extend the experience of computers to include not just vision and sound but also touch.

Using this type of touch feedback could be a very rich way to learn

Dr Sile O'Modhrain, Media Lab Europe
Dr O'Modhrain has a particular interest in how touch technology could enhance the experience of a blind person like herself.

"I've always wanted from computers the same richness that other people have had from visual media," she told the BBC programme Go Digital.

"For most blind people, their interaction with their computers is just through speech and often it is very automated speech.

"Using this type of touch feedback could be a very rich way to learn about the laws of physics and mathematic or just have fun playing games," she said.

Wooden rollers

MIT researchers have already developed a simple device on wooden rollers connected by a wire that allows two people to feel each other moving the object.

Wooden rollers, MIT
Feel the force on these wooden rollers
The team in Dublin are looking to build on this and make touch technology available to the public.

"We're using force-feedback joysticks," said Ian Oakley, research associate at Media Lab Europe.

"We want to use mainstream technology to provide this communication between two people, so we're looking at instant messaging and trying to add touch."

The team have developed a system where two people can throw a virtual ball to each other and feel the force of the throw via a force-feedback joystick.

"In a later version, we might make it into a proper game where you would have to aim at the other person's goal, like air hockey," said Mr Oakley.

Feeling your way

The research is still in its early stages, but the team is enthusiastic about the possibilities for haptics technology.

"It would allow you to feel present and connected in a way you don't through video," said Dr O'Modhrain.

She pictures a scenario where two people could design a piece of furniture together even if they are separated by many kilometres.

In the future, they could not only talk about it but also be able to experience what the furniture would feel like.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Promise of touch technologies
12 Feb 02 | New Media
Legal fight over vibrating joysticks
25 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
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