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Operating at a distance

Just for a moment touch a woolen sweater from our favorite web shop, caress a loved one who is somewhere else, or operate on an Iraqi from a London hospital: imagine we could do all this at a distance with the help of internet and haptic feedback. Robotics advisor Jesse Scholtes tells about his dreams of the possibilities of operating at a distance: haptic technology

“It is like you are in a different, virtual world. Like you are walking around there and not only receive audible and visual information, but tangible feedback as well. You would really merge into that new environment and it would be so realistic that you would actually experience the adventure. Yes, that sounds cool to me.”

“If one could feel the structure of things through haptic feedback, this could become an extra feature in web shops. Just have a feel of the fabric before you purchase an item of clothing. That technology can also be used for designing products. In the automotive industry, a lot of research is done on the feel of all the buttons or the texture of the steering wheel. Consumers need to have a positive experience when trying. It would save a lot of money if designers could first design all these parts virtually and test them using haptic feedback, in order to know which experience this evokes.”

Surgery at a distance

“To me, the most fascinating would be surgery at a distance. If a surgeon in a certain place could operate a machine so it performs surgery somewhere else. We could operate on a large number of people in places where there are few surgeons. Imagine that a consultant in London could do a complicated operation near a battlefield in Iraq. Haptic feedback is essential here, of course: the surgeon needs to feel what they are doing. Imagine having to walk with a pins-and-needles leg, or pick something up wearing boxing gloves. This is a strange experience, because one does not feel a thing. The slave, which is the machine that is operated from a distance, has to perform power tests and send the results to the surgeon.”

“Many of these things are already possible, technically speaking. For example, the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven has developed a robot for eye surgery that the surgeon can manage. The surgeon operates the slave with a haptic pen (called the master) with power feedback, so whenever the slave touches something, the surgeon will feel it. The good thing is that the slave can work far more precisely than a human being: if the surgeon moves their hand by 1 centimeter, the slave moves by, for example, 1 millimeter. Another possibility is to filter out the surgeon’s trembling, so they can continue working until an older age.”

If one wishes to operate at a long distance, time delay can be an issue. If the surgeon only receives feedback on their movement after a second, things will get complicated. However, in general the application of such technologies does not cause problems. There are only financial obstacles. In order to bring a medical machine on the market, one has to perform all kinds of tests. This process often costs ten to twenty million euro. The same goes for the gaming industry: if one really wants to feel one’s surroundings, one needs something that exerts power on the body. This brings a kind of exoskeleton to mind, which is currently unaffordable to consumers.”

Care at a distance

“With the help of robots, people can live at home for a longer time. The issue concerning the elderly is often that a request for help is unpredictable. When does a person fall down? When should the door be opened? When has something fallen on the ground? Nowadays, care robots are not yet intelligent enough to deal with all these home situations. Then operating at a distance can be a solution. The elderly person calls when help is necessary, a care worker at the switchboard logs in and makes the robot perform an action. In this situation too, haptic feedback is necessary, so the care worker feels what the robot is doing. Dutch company Rose BV is working on this.”

Sex at a distance

People are trying to make tangible communication through the Internet possible. Holland Haptics is working on a project aiming at holding each other’s hands at a distance. In the sex industry, things are happening as well: there are haptic interfaces, dildos that enable having sex with each other at a distance, or with an avatar. I am not familiar with that, but these kinds of things might as well boost haptic technology. At the time, it was porn that provided a breakthrough for the VHS (video tape). If one can tap new markets, products will automatically become cheaper.

(This article by Enith Vlooswijk was published earlier in Dutch in Firestarters)

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