Of all the five senses, touch is perhaps the most underrated. Which is why those in the world of haptics (3D touch) are keen to raise its profile.
Alisha Mukherjee, who has just produced a report highlighting the benefits of haptics, wants to see wider acknowledgement of its massive potential, particularly in the light of COVID-19.
“Haptics technologies are going to play an essential role in reshaping our environment post-pandemic,” she says.
“From the ability to carry out surgery remotely to the use of touchless interfaces by the public, the development of haptics will be crucial to our society”.
Ms Mukherjee, Research and Policy Analyst at Digital Catapult, a UK agency promoting digital innovation, is author of the report Haptics: What the Future Feels Like.
The report showcases a number of possible applications for haptics technology in healthcare, the creative arts and industry.
“Haptics technologies are going to play an essential role in reshaping our environment post-pandemic.” Alisha Mukherjee, author of the report Haptics: What the Future Feels Like
One section of the report considers public anxiety as a result of COVID-19 and the use of touchscreens at health centres, supermarket checkouts and transport ticket machines.
The screens are known sources of contamination and since the start of the pandemic haptics companies have been working flat out on developing alternative touchless interfaces.
This includes the use of hand tracking immersive technology to allow remote operation of equipment, for example surgical equipment.
“This is something I’m really excited about,” says Ms Mukherjee. “My background is genetics so I’m biased. But the thought of a surgeon on the other side of the world doing kidney surgery on a patient in the UK – it just wasn’t around when I trained!”
She cites an example of a UK patient needing heart surgery when the leading surgeon for a particular procedure is in, say, Germany.
“The surgeon can use a VR (Virtual Reality) headset and haptic gloves to carry out the operation remotely.
“So the patients does not need to travel. And that’s even more beneficial if they have COVID (or any other communicable illness) as it means they will come into contact with fewer other people.”
There are also many applications for haptics in the field of mental health, says Ms Mukherjee.
“People can wear a haptic suit to receive a virtual hug from someone else. Again in these COVID times this could benefit someone unable to see their families.
“Some of the kit is very expensive but the price will come down. And it doesn’t have to be paired with a virtual reality headset.
“You can just touch a haptic tile that makes a tile in another household buzz. Another person can respond and it’s a link between the two of you.
“This technology could also help make the world more accessible for disabled people. I know the Royal National Institute for the Blind is trying to persuade makers of mobile phones to include more haptic buttons so people can use them without having to see the screen.
“And there are other examples like mid-air haptics for an art exhibition: People will be able to feel a sculpture that they can’t see.
“For deaf people who want to go to a concert there are floor tiles that reverberate with sound so the person can feel the music through their feet.
“Another emerging area is haptic taste. They are doing some very exciting work at the University of Sussex Human-Computer Interaction Lab looking at multi- sensory experiences. For example how you can give people the illusion of taste.
“Alot of the tech is already out there, but the issue is how do we roll it out. If we can find a way to scale some of this technology, the possibilities are endless.
“I want to see continued UK investment in this field. But the issue is many people just aren’t aware of the possibilities.
“We need to demonstrate the potential. And get people talking about the possibilities of haptics in the way they do about AI or 5G. Because haptics technology is just as exciting as those other innovations and, like them, it’s going to transform our world.”
"The issue is many people just aren’t aware of the possibilities of haptics." Alisha Mukherjee