Romano is a texture guy. A while ago he mounted a piece of denim to some heavy cardstock. He did the same with a swatch of vinyl, a piece of fine stationery, and a square of rough plastic. Then he set about feeling them.

Again and again, he dragged the tip of a stylus over the surface of each sample. He pressed against the vinyl gently, then firmly. (Or as Romano puts it, he applied one Newton of force, then two, and so on.) He scraped across the rough plastic slowly, then quickly; the crinkles in its surface snagged the stylus tip to a greater and lesser degree. A shaft-mounted accelerometer measured the vibrations and digitally recorded them in fine-grained detail. Romano did this, and tinkered with the resulting data, for weeks. The man gives the word superficial a whole new spin.

He turned his data sets into mathematical models, which gave him what amounted to compressed computer files corresponding to each texture. (That, it seems safe to say, was the doctoral-level stuff.) Then he outfitted the stylus with a pair of tiny motors capable of rendering the math back into motion. (Well, that too.)

Now imagine dragging a stylus—or a pencil tip, if that’s more familiar—across the smooth screen of a tablet monitor, or a handheld PDA device. It scoots across the glass practically without friction, making almost no sound.

That’s exactly what doesn’t happen when Romano calls up one of his textures to a screen that sits next to his keyboard. This time, you drag the stylus over a picture of crinkled plastic and it jiggles around in your hand as though you were plowing across actual furrows and seams. The pixels of denim “feel” like a pair of broken-in jeans. Writing on the virtual stationery is downright eerie. The papery scritch-scratch might as well be emanating from a pen nib scrawling an old-fashioned thank-you note.

A nearby computer station is equipped with a device called a Phantom Omni, which looks like a mechanical arm with a couple of hinges that allow you to move an attached stylus through the empty airspace below. Its salient feature, though, is its ability to transform computer code into what amounts to an invisible object.

Romano recently loaded up a couple of examples for a visitor.

First, the computer monitor displayed a simple rendering, using perspective to convey depth, of a ball lying in a box. “Now take the stylus,” Romano said once the Phantom Omni’s hidden motors had synched up to the computer code. Prodding the same space as before, the stylus’s tip seemed to ram against something. On screen, the ball lurched. With a little practice, it quickly became possible to bat the ball against the virtual walls—like playing a game of squash, only using the shaft of a dry-erase marker instead of a racquet. When the stylus itself came in contact with one of the virtural walls, it stopped cold, as if it were being pressed into a foam pad.

“With these devices, everything kind of feels spongy and slippery,” Romano said. “They can give you information about the shape of an object, but they don’t give you the fine details. So that’s the thing we’ve been working on. Any kind of simulation people come up with, you could add in this fine-detail information.”

If a simulation called for denim or stationery, Romano could add those textures today. With an expanded library, the possibilities are limitless. When Kuchenbecker looks into her crystal ball, she sees what she calls haptic photography. Say an online shopper wanted to get a tactile sense of a clothing fabric, or an archaeologist wanted to “handle” an artifact located in a museum thousands of miles away.

“We have developed and are in the process of improving models to capture those sensations and distill them down into a portable, emailable form,” she says. “And then we’re also developing the hardware to really accurately recreate those sensations. So that when you drag your tool over the virtual surface, we can make it feel just the same as if you have the real artifact there in front of you.”

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COVER STORY: Touching the Virtual Frontier By Trey Popp
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