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Smartphone haptics project aims to encourage children’s interest in nature

3rd June 2021 about a 3 minute read
By simulating the experience of touching the natural world through haptic technology, the researchers hope to encourage and enhance pupils’ sensory explorations of nature. The Open University SENSE project

Ten new UK projects to find digital solutions to pressing sustainability issues have won a total of £8million funding.

They include new technology that enables children to experience nature through their smartphones by ‘feeling’ textures such as feathers, fur and tree bark.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced the projects as part of the EPSRC Sustainable Digital Society call. The EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences.

Its Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said: “Sustainability should be at the heart and start of everything we do.

“The 10 projects receiving funding seek to find innovative solutions to a diverse range of sustainability issues and, of course, the projects themselves have been planned with sustainability in mind.”

Haptics on smartphones 

The Sensory Explorations of Nature in School Environments (SENSE) project is led by professor Advaith Siddarthan of the Open University.

By simulating the experience of touching the natural world through haptic technology, the researchers hope to encourage and enhance pupils’ sensory explorations of nature. 

The use of haptic technologies aims to help foster greater interest in, and appreciation of, nature and the outdoors.

Professor Siddharthan said: “Our project develops technologies that encourage pupils to touch and feel, in order to provoke different scientific questions and inquiries and to help connect with nature. 

“Why is a bumblebee so much hairier than a wasp? Why do oak trees have a rougher bark than beech?”

The haptic adaptor kit will be fitted to pre-existing smart phones and tablets. This will help ensure the sustainability of the project and reduce waste.

The adaptors work by modulating the friction of the touchscreen, either through electrostatic methods or by vibrating the surface at ultrasound frequencies to create an air layer beneath the finger. 

When the surface friction is controlled as a function of image pixels under the finger, this gives the sensation of texture.

The technologies will be developed at the Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, and be co-created in schools with project partners.

Other projects

The nine other projects receiving funding include schemes to decarbonise the electrochemical industry, make clothes last longer through care and repair, ensure the ICT industry itself meets the standards of the Paris Agreement plus a project that uses the behaviour of bees as inspiration for research into improving home energy efficiency.

The full list of projects receiving funding:

CX: Consumer Experience (CX) digital tools for dematerialisation for the circular economy

Professor Sharon Baurley, Royal College of Art.

VENTURA: virtual decision rooms for water neutral urban planning

Dr Ana Mijic, Imperial College London.

DCEE: Digital Circular Electrochemical Economy

Professor Nilay Shah, Imperial College London.

Environmental impacts of digital services for health and wellbeing in the home

Ralitsa Hiteva, University of Sussex.

SENSE: Sensory Explorations of Nature in School Environments

Professor Advaith Siddarthan, Open University.

GLOW: Energy nested bio system flows: from the home to the hub

Dr Sonja Dragojlovic-Oliveira, University of the West of England.

Scalable circular supply chain for the built environment

  • Dr Yingli Wang, Cardiff University
  • Rajiv Ranhan, Newcastle University.

EATS: Enhancing Agri-Food Transparent Sustainability

  • Professor Peter Edwards, University of Aberdee
  • Dr Nicholas Watson, University of Nottingham
  • Dr Hannah Rudman, SRUC
  • Professor Mel Woods, University of Dundee.

Paris-DE: design principles and responsible innovation for a sustainable digital cconomy

Professor Gordon Blair, Lancaster University.

Beyond individual persuasion: towards a paradigm shift in interactive visualisation and sensing for environmental change

Enrico Costanza, University College London.