Haptics - feeling in the virtual world

Jul 5, 2011

Kettering's Dr. Mehrdad Zadeh is engineering real world technology solutions through haptics research in the virtual world.

When people think of virtual reality, the assumption is that it can only be experienced through two senses: vision and sound. In the Kettering University Haptics Lab, however, students work within virtual worlds that incorporate touch as well.

Haptics technology allows a user to ‘touch’ virtual objects by using forces, vibrations or movements of the user in simulations. It has a wide variety of practical uses in various industries.

“Haptics technology enables computer users to feel or manipulate virtual objects or virtual environments, or remote objects into operation systems,” said Dr. Mehrdad Zadeh, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Haptics has many applications – medical applications, applications in the automotive industry, entertainment and many more.”

Zadeh has been researching haptics since January 2002. He did his master's work in haptics at Concordia University in Montreal and then worked for a company designing haptic-enabled surgical simulators before working on his PhD at the University of Waterloo (Ontario).

“I became interested in haptics because I was looking for a new technology,” he said. “I’m interested in learning new things. I’ve chosen haptics and worked with it in my research because it is interesting and it’s a multi-disciplinary research area. I could use my background in engineering and computer science skills in haptics.”

Several industries use haptics-enabled technology. In the auto industry, in-car user interfaces are very important for the safety of the passengers.

“Currently, drivers only use their vision system to acquire information from outside or inside the car,” Zadeh said. “At Kettering, we are working on haptic-enabled in-car user interfaces. Using haptics, we want to reduce the load on other sensory channels like vision. We did some research on an object avoidance system. For example, if you want to change your lane and there’s a car in your blind spot, through the steering wheel, haptics provides a mechanism to keep you in your lane. It doesn’t let you change lanes because it allows you to ‘feel’ the other car next to you.”

There are also practical uses of haptics in medicine. For example, there are robot-assisted surgery devices and surgical simulators. Since surgeons rely heavily on their sense of touch, these simulators allow novice surgeons the opportunity to practice surgeries in a virtual environment using haptics devices that simulate actual parts of the human body.

Haptics also has entertainment applications as video gaming software now very commonly incorporates motion or touch in the controller.

Zadeh designed an elective course in the ECE department called ‘Haptics Systems,’ which has been offered three times so far, with great turnout each time.

“We do many projects during the course and students are really interested in learning how to develop haptic applications and how to evaluate the effect of haptics in our life,” Zadeh said. “After the course, students started working with me on projects they did in class or new projects as their academic thesis or as independent study working with me. I have some graduate students who are also working on haptics and its applications.”

The course is one of only a handful of similar courses in haptics offered in universities across the country. Part of the draw of the discipline is its versatility.

“Haptics is used in the mechanical department, electrical department and the computer department,” Zadeh said. “We had a tremendous interest from students and parents during Discover Kettering. They came to the lab and didn’t leave for a while. They thought it was cool that we had this facility and opportunity for kids to learn about a new technology.”

Kettering has several students working on haptics-related research. Kalanathlalith Gunturu, a graduate student from India, is working on a haptic-enabled hand writing tool to help people learn to write his native language, Hindi.

“Haptics makes things simpler and easier,” Gunturu said. “If one person is teaching 50 students, the teacher can wonder whether everyone is grasping the writing. By enabling this haptic feedback in alphabets and letters when learning Hindi language, which is complicated because of its structure and design, haptics adds some more structure to the learning by putting constraints on letters so you learn how you have to construct the letters.”

Ana Tomboulian, a sophomore dual-major in Computer Science and Computer Engineering, is also working on developing a haptic tool to teach beginning language learners how to write in Hindi.

“The stylus is used like a pen, and with forces from the machine it is attached to, it will guide the user's hand in the correct path to write a specified letter,” she said. “The cursor is on the screen and moves with the stylus as the user traces the letter along the lined path on the screen. There is a lot of resistance if you choose to move your hand in the wrong direction.”

Fariba Khosravian, a grad student from Iran, is researching power saving functions for mobile robots in the Haptics Lab.

“Power saving is an important area of research for mobile robots,” she said. “It is important for the military and others that use the robots to be able to save power.”

Thomas Sophiea, an undergrad student, is researching the communication side of haptic data, namely how to remotely transmit it.

“Information through haptic data is different than anything we’ve had before,” Sophiea said. “We have obstacles to overcome like time delay. If you were trying to send an operator something they touch, time delay is going to be very important to eliminate. In our computer networks class we have here we talk about time delay. In the network end, there are all kinds of new communications challenges because of haptic data and our job is to sort out those problems.”

Nicholas Cramer, currently a senior three and dual major in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, has been working on a tele-operated mobile robot controlled by a haptic steering wheel and pedal combination.

“This project is centered around the idea that there are many situations where we might like to control a robot remotely, and while doing this it can be very difficult to perceive the environment,” he said. “To help with this an ultra-sonic sensor takes in the distance and angle that the objects that surround the robot. Then through various algorithms these values are used to apply a resulting force on the steering wheel, the pedal, or both. The reason we decided to use a steering wheel and pedal was that they are objects that we use everyday when driving, to and from work or maybe the grocery store. We are comfortable sitting behind a steering wheel and because of that we hope to tap into that feeling of comfort and knowledge of driving to lessen the learning curve that would normally be associated with the control of a tele-operated mobile robot.”

The ability of the Haptics Lab and the haptics course to allow students the opportunity new ways of researching and interacting with computers has been a big draw, one that has given Kettering another unique and valuable research facility.

“What made me interested in haptics was the human-computer interaction part of it,” Cramer said. “For the most part we think of our communication to computers in the terms of a screen, a mouse and a keyboard. Haptics, though, allows us to communicate with the computer through a completely different way, and that’s just kind of cool no matter how you slice it.”

“Haptics gives another opportunity for student retention,” Zadeh said. “Many students are interested in haptics, it gives them something to stay with that’s versatile and they can work on developing something that is tailored to many different majors. It also gives us the opportunity to bring graduate students to campus and that helps a lot for Kettering.”

Written by Patrick Hayes