Dispatch from Chicago

You may remember that I've mentioned the word haptics a few times in previous newsletters. It refers to the study of any form of interaction involving touch. I've spent this past week at the World Haptics Conference in Chicago, where I've met some of the top scientists in the field who are working on understanding the mechanisms behind our sense of touch and using it to create interactive technology that gives the impression of textures and feelings. Most of our current technology just uses sight and sound, so they see the emergence of haptics as the next step in the digital age. I have a lot to say about the things I've learned here, but for now, I'll leave you with the top 5 coolest things I've seen.

Because we're increasingly interacting with our touch screens rather than buttons, plenty of companies are investigating how to make us feel clicks and shapes and textures on these flat surface using faint electrical charges and vibrations. This is a screen made by the company Tanvas. It's a pretty neat effect, and definitely a step forward in this technology, though that snakeskin texture on the left didn't quite read as realistic to me. The one on the far right, on the other hand, felt true to the image.

Because we're increasingly interacting with our touch screens rather than buttons, plenty of companies are investigating how to make us feel clicks and shapes and textures on these flat surface using faint electrical charges and vibrations. This is a screen made by the company Tanvas. It's a pretty neat effect, and definitely a step forward in this technology, though that snakeskin texture on the left didn't quite read as realistic to me. The one on the far right, on the other hand, felt true to the image.

Students at Saitama University in Japan have me place my finger on a block of metal with double-sided tape on it. It's sticky to the touch. Then, they add an ultrasonic vibration, and it becomes as slippery as a block of ice. This was one of my favorites. Typically these effects are meant to add texture where there is none, but here's a case where a feeling is actually removed.

Students at Saitama University in Japan have me place my finger on a block of metal with double-sided tape on it. It's sticky to the touch. Then, they add an ultrasonic vibration, and it becomes as slippery as a block of ice. This was one of my favorites. Typically these effects are meant to add texture where there is none, but here's a case where a feeling is actually removed.

A student at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo presents a belt that applies pressure to the right of the waist, making the conference participant feel like his torso is turning left. The illusion is magnified while walking. While most of us are aware of several optical illusions, this is an example of a pretty freaky haptic illusion.

A student at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo presents a belt that applies pressure to the right of the waist, making the conference participant feel like his torso is turning left. The illusion is magnified while walking. While most of us are aware of several optical illusions, this is an example of a pretty freaky haptic illusion.

Sven Topp, a deaf blind man from Australia communicates with his wife using touch. Topp has funding from Google to create a machine that translates spoken words into the finger spellings he uses. It's a truly beautiful-looking language. I couldn't decide who was more amazing: Topp or his wife, who had to learn how to sign words such as "cutaneous" and "actuator" to prepare to translate for him.

Sven Topp, a deaf blind man from Australia communicates with his wife using touch. Topp has funding from Google to create a machine that translates spoken words into the finger spellings he uses. It's a truly beautiful-looking language. I couldn't decide who was more amazing: Topp or his wife, who had to learn how to sign words such as "cutaneous" and "actuator" to prepare to translate for him.

A conference attendee is testing out a dental surgery simulation created by the company Moog. He's looking at a 3-D image of a tooth and holding a drilling tool. The machine convincingly mimics the feeling of the metal sliding across the hard surface of the tooth and the vibration created by drilling.

A conference attendee is testing out a dental surgery simulation created by the company Moog. He's looking at a 3-D image of a tooth and holding a drilling tool. The machine convincingly mimics the feeling of the metal sliding across the hard surface of the tooth and the vibration created by drilling.

I hope you're all enjoying the summer!

Sushma Subramanian