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)
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.
But keep your hands to yourself.