New haptic codec could transform teleoperations

An international consortium has developed a new global standard for the compression and transmission of haptic information, said to be a boost for telesurgery and remote driving.

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In development since 2014, the "Haptic Codecs for the Tactile Internet" (HCTI) is similar in nature to JPEG or MP3, globally recognised formats for sending images or audio over the internet. To reduce the amount of data to be sent, programs known as codecs encode and decode data for transmission, filtering out data that is irrelevant for human perception.

However, haptic systems require a data loop, with information passing in both directions. Previously, it was common practice to send data packets in both directions up to 4,000 times per second for the transmission of tactile information.

"This places very high demands on the communication network that transports the data packets," said Prof Eckehard Steinbach, chair of Media Technology at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), which led the consortium.

TUM Professor Eckehard Steinbach - Andreas Heddergott / TUM

The new HCTI standard – IEEE standard 1918.1.1 – compresses haptic data to reduce the clock rate of data transfer to around 100 times per second. According to Steinbach, this is much closer to the level of human perception.

Alongside compression, the researchers optimised the control loop between the sender and receiver. In total, three types of codecs are outlined in the standard, including the no-delay kinesthetic codec, the delay-robust kinesthetic codec, and the tactile codec. Additionally, the standard introduces handshaking and metadata mechanisms for the exchange of the capabilities of haptic devices. The end result is that haptic data packets sent over long distances should not suffer any lagging.

"The integrated control has a stabilising effect,” said Steinbach. “The forces exerted by a distant robot, for example, are slightly dampened. Hard surfaces feel softer."

According to Steinbach, the new codec could trigger a new wave of innovation in teleoperations, acting as a catalyst in areas such as remote surgery, teledriving, and haptic feedback in gaming and entertainment.

"In the case of JPEG, MP3 and MPEG, many applications emerged after the standards were made public," said Steinbach. "I expect the same from our new haptic codecs."

Alongside TUM, the consortium has seen contributions from Imperial College London, New York University of Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi), Dalian University in China and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), among others.