If you’ve never been stung by imaginary gunfire, sent a texture sample by email, or had a sleeve teach you how to move your arm, Katherine Kuchenbecker’s Haptics Lab is a Pandora’s box of tactile trickery and strange sensations.
BY TREY POPP
Saurabh Palan GEng’10 wants you to know how it feels to get hit by a bullet. Also, slashed across your shoulder with a sword. Or maybe a zombie claw. Then there’s the sensation of blood flowing from an open wound. He wants you to feel what that’s like too, so he reaches into an electronics drawer in a Towne Building workspace for a thumbnail-sized Peltier element. Plugged into an electrical current, one side of the wafer spreads a gentle wave of warmth over your skin. It’s kind of soothing. Then he pulls out another and tapes it to your arm next to the first, flipped upside down onto its cooling side. He triggers the current and smiles brightly. The combination produces the tactile illusion of a branding-iron burn.
These are not the typical elements of a class project in robotics. Graduate students in engineering are more accustomed to experiencing pain than inflicting it. But Palan is an aspiring roboticist whose interests run in a very human direction. He wants to tap into what are perhaps our most intense and intimate sensations, the ones engendered by our sense of touch.
In the case of his Tactile Gaming Vest, that means simulating the injuries that lie in wait for a computerized avatar wandering the alien-infested corridors of Half-Life 2. One of his ideas is to make the first-person-shooter genre a little more immersive. So when your attackers target you from behind, you feel a thwack-thwack-thwack against your kidneys. If they come at you straight on, you feel the gunfire in your ribs.
The prototype he was working on in April was a somewhat stripped-down version of previous ones; the bullet simulators felt a little more like shiatsu taps than sniper rounds, and there was no burning or virtual bleeding to suffer through. “We could do that successfully, but it required a lot of current, so we had to drop it,” Palan explained. His original partner on the project was Ruoyao Wang GEng’09; Edward Li GEng’10 and junior Ned Naukam have pitched in along the way.
“But an application like this, with the blood flow, could be used for military training,” he added, conjuring a vision of soldiers waging war games with heavier, battery-packed simulation vests rather than potentially hazardous rubber bullets. Kind of like laser tag, enhanced with pain.
“We can make this wireless,” he said. “The main purpose of giving this training to them is to make them aware of how they’re going to feel when they get shot, so that they do not go into shock or a trauma state [in actual combat], and they can handle it. So simulating that in a very realistic way—but not hurting the soldiers at the time—is very important.”
Palan, who earned his master’s in May, is one of a few dozen students to pass through Penn’s Haptics Lab. Haptics is a branch of engineering that focuses on human interaction with real and virtual objects through touch and motion. If you’ve ever swept your fingers across an iPhone screen to scroll through a photo album, or swung a Nintendo Wii remote to strike an imaginary tennis ball, you have an entry-level idea of what the field is about.
Where it’s going next is the purview of Katherine Kuchenbecker, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, who founded the Haptics Group when she came to Penn in 2007 and serves as its director. A vest that attacks its owner is just the beginning. There are some far stranger sensations on offer in this unkempt room in the Towne Building basement, and their potential applications range from the physical rehabilitation of stroke survivors, to remote-control surgery, to the transmission of textures and sensations by email the way people send photo files now.
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COVER STORY: Touching the Virtual Frontier By Trey Popp
Illustration by Scott Bakal
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette