Replicating the Sense of Touch

Haptics is a field of engineering that is focused on replicating the sense of touch. Simulating the feeling of a surface could make for more immersive entertainment, more edifying educational tools, or more realistic training devices.

Katherine Kuchenbecker, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is pushing the field of haptics forward with something she calls “haptography.”

Using sensors embedded in a handheld-device, haptography captures the way something feels, much like how like photography captures the way something looks. Running a sensor-embedded stylus over a textured surface such as corduroy, accelerometers pick up the vibrations of the stylus moving across the surface’s ridges. A similar stylus, outfitted with motors, can “play back” those vibrations when a user moves the stylus in the same way.

Some of the projects stemming from her haptography work, made possible by a National Science Foundation ARRA grant, are designed to improve medical training. They include a dental probe that allows students to feel what an instructor feels as he or she investigates a cavity, and a model epidural needle that simulates the feeling of pushing through several different layers of tissue so students can practice injecting the right spot.

Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig