The virtual world goes tactile

Until now, the ability to touch and feel what you can see and hear in the virtual world has been its vital missing element. Phantom, a product which is about to go on sale in the UK through a licensing agreement with applications specialist Virtual Presence, changes all that. It uses force sensing technology that […]

Until now, the ability to touch and feel what you can see and hear in the virtual world has been its vital missing element.

Phantom, a product which is about to go on sale in the UK through a licensing agreement with applications specialist Virtual Presence, changes all that.

It uses force sensing technology that allows people to touch and feel the images they see in 3D with existing VR tools a PC and stereoscopic glasses.

Engineers will be the first to benefit from work done by Virtual Presence to integrate Phantom into dVise, the leading virtual prototyping software from Division.

The technology also has medical applications. Trainee doctors will soon be able to touch and feel vital organs and tissue when Phantom becomes part of the Mist virtual reality package. This has been developed by Virtual Presence as an aid to keyhole surgery.

Bob Stone, director of Virtual Presence’s consultancy division in Manchester, explains that tiny electric motors such as those used in windscreen wipers play a key role in the development.

They are part of a miniature robotic arm attached to a thimble worn by the VR user.

The thimble, which can be replaced by a stylus or other interactive tool, provides sensory feedback from the virtual object.

When the user ‘sees’ contact between finger and object the finger is represented on screen as a 3D cursor he or she also feels it.

As the finger ‘touches’ the object, the owner feels a force applied as a result of one or more of the robot’s electric motors being ‘locked out’ by the ‘collision’, says Stone.

Software supplied with Phantom has a dual role. First, it senses and drives the position of the robot in three axes in relation to the 3D position of finger. Second, it applies a resistive force at the correct location.

The software updates positional data more than 1,000 times each second. This highly accurate tracking, combined with fast data processing, means that Phantom can even represent relatively complex sensations like friction.

The technologies were developed by US scientists Thomas Massie and Dr Kenneth Salisbury. Massie is the founder and chief technical officer of SensAble, the company set up to market Phantom. Salisbury is principal research scientist at MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory.