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Haptics in the real world

Professor William Harwin introduces haptics, his research and describes potential applications for haptic robots within health and education.
I’m William Harwin at the University of Reading. So what is haptics? Haptics is actually a concept which comes out of psychology, which is a perception. So usually in a virtual reality, you can put on a head mounted display or go into a virtual reality environment and you can see things and they look very appealing. You can move around but you can’t actually touch them. So if we can use the robot to actually provide forces against the person, we can actually give people a belief that they’re actually touching things. You can then get immediately a sense of the object’s substance. And one of the innovative things that we’ve been doing for quite awhile here, actually, is what we call multi-finger haptics.
So you can actually use your whole hand to pick up things, move them around, look around, look at the back of them, and interact with them in a way which we do naturally when we interact in the real world but we don’t actually have as a way of interacting with virtual worlds. And some of the things that we’ve been doing here, first year is just very basic, trying to work out how to programme robots so that you can do this type of interactions, but then actually starting to look at applications, trying to use robots in health care. So we’ve been doing work on robots in stroke rehabilitation. We’re also involved in robotic technologies in other areas, like spinal cord injury.
Some previous work I was doing was looking at some of these progressive conditions like spinal muscular atrophy and muscular dystrophy. One of the successful ones is a haptic system to allow dental students to prepare cavities. So we can use this very simple haptic technology, essentially robots, a parallel design robot, if you’re interested in the actual robotic side of the technology, and that has some very nice characteristics for that particular application. But what it does is it allows the dental student to actually feel the tooth, not actually feel the tooth, actually drill into the tooth.
It’s a virtual tooth, so if something goes wrong, they can reset and they can do the whole thing again, not something that you could do on a real tooth. So you can feel the tooth, you can drill into the tooth, you can prepare the cavity. You get the sounds that the burr makes against the tooth, and that’s actually a very important part when we’ve been talking to the psychologists. It’s how you integrate all this information together to be something that you can believe in. A lot of what we’re doing is trying to put all these various cues together so you can actually believe that what you’re actually drilling into is a real tooth.
But because we’ve got this control, we can do things that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. So we can do things like turn off gravity. We can give you the experience of firing a jet even though the jet is not actually there. We don’t have the problem with hot gases if you actually were interacting with a jet. So we can do things in a haptics world that we couldn’t do in a virtual world. And we’re starting to extend this. We’re starting to look at other application areas.
One of the things that I’m really interested in doing in the near future is starting to look at haptics as a way of teaching science in schools, and so we’re very keen on trying to see if we take this technology and apply it in wider areas of education.

In this video William Harwin, Professor of interactive and human robotics at the University of Reading, introduces haptic robotics.

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