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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[October 30, 2002]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

Shaking Hands Across the Internet

Gone may be the days when you can insult another person over the Internet without fear of retribution, or argue with your spouse that cyber-sex doesn't really count as cheating.

Yesterday, scientists at the University College London and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shook hands.

Unremarkable news, except when you consider that neither of them left their respective labs in London and Boston. Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail referred to it as "the first transatlantic handshake over the Internet." (We presume that no one has previously shook hands across the Atlantic, either with or without the Internet, because of arm length constraints.)

Back in May, two transatlantic colleagues were able to simultaneously pick up a virtual cube and move it, each manipulating the cube in response to the other's touch. In scientific terms, it's referred to as haptic (touch) feedback, and it opens a whole new channel of communication, and a whole host of applications.

Mandayam A. Srinivasan, director of MIT's Touch Lab and head of the project at MIT, admits that as of yet, they are unable to foresee all of the uses for haptic feedback.

"We really don't know all of the potential applications," said Srinivasan. "Just like Bell didn't anticipate all of the applications for the telephone."

That's for sure. I have a hard time believing that Alexander Graham Bell could have imagined junk faxes, phone sex and Spice Girls ring tones back in March of 1876 when he spoke to his assistant Thomas Watson the first words ever to be transmitted via telephone: "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you."

Thus far, however, the science of haptic feedback sees several areas that will undoubtedly benefit from the discovery, notably telemedicine, in which a surgeon can virtually "palpate" a patient's diseased body part from the other side of the country; engineering and architecture, where two or more parties can remotely collaborate on projects in more detail; and Web-based education, which would allow students to interact with others using more than the presently available two senses.

By way of background, haptic feedback is enabled by a little component called a PHANToM, which was developed by scientists at MIT.

A PHANToM is a small robotic arm that provides something called force feedback that, when used by two participants in an interaction, pushes high-frequency impulses (as high as 1,000 Hz) via the Internet from one individual to another, regardless of their locations. The result is that the recipient can "feel" a touch, and can reportedly even feel the difference between a variety of tactile sensations -- hard or soft, fuzzy or smooth. Additionally, users can virtually manipulate objects -- actually examine them by "touch."

It works like this: all participants see an empty, three-dimensional room on their computer monitors. The room contains a black box. Pointers represent the two participants, allowing them to see where they are, virtually speaking, in the room. They then use the PHANToM robotic arm to manipulate their pointer into moving the box. As a participant touches the PHANToM to lift the box, he can "feel" the surface texture of the box -- in the case of the May experiment, it felt like hard rubber. The two participants "lift" the box by applying pressure to opposite sides of the cube. Remarkably, one user can feel the other participant's manipulation of the box, which enables them to work in tandem to accomplish the lift.

A press release issued by MIT indicated that a writer for one of its publications, Tech Talk, participated in the experiment and upon encountering the "touch," was startled enough by its sense of reality to jump backwards in surprise.

The application for such technologies is called "collaborative virtual environments" (CVE). Using virtual environment (VE) devices, which can include pens or wands, trackers or head mount displays, scientists can send data that represent physical forces via the Internet. The data can then be "re-translated" back into sensations of force and texture at the other end.

Difficulties in CVE have thus far resulted from lag time, packet loss and incompatibility of different hardware. Lag time can be gotten around by making sure the whole operation is conducted very slowly, allowing "catch up" of any lost time. Presently, the amount of time it takes for the touch sensation to travel across the Internet, be felt by the hand and synch with the brain is longer than the organic delay between touching an object and the time it takes for the sensation to register in the brain. As lag is eliminated, as well as the "jitter" from packet loss, the more the sensations provided by haptic feedback will resemble a live touch.

The experiment is being conducted as the culminating event of this week's Internet2 Fall 2002 member's meeting in Los Angeles. The Internet2, billed as the next generation of the Internet, is conducive to experiments such as this one due to its fiber optic cabling and higher bandwidths.

Obviously, this is not a technology that's going to be for sale on Amazon.com by this Christmas. Collaborative virtual environment technology is in its infancy; this week it took its second baby step.

But just as earlier this year a team of physicists at Australia National University was able to teleport a single photon one meter to the left (or right, depending on perspective), bringing to mind all sorts of wondrous Star Trek-inspired futures, haptic feedback allows our imaginations to wander to a world of virtual vacations and face-to-face meetings by individuals on opposite sides of the planet.

Not to mention smacking the hell out of spammers.

The author may be contacted at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com. But keep your hands to yourself.

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