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"The Magic of Touch," from the Boston Globe

by John Yemma, Globe Staff

The computer screen in Thomas Massie’s office is displaying a very lifelike terra-cotta mask with smooth curves. It is so good a 3-D representation that you want to reach out and touch it. Touching something, after all, is the way to confirm its reality. It is supposed to separate the waking world from the dream, human from ghost, hard object from hologram.

Then Massie invites a visitor to go ahead and touch the computer image by placing a finger in a thimble connected with a machine hooked up to the computer. Sure enough, as you push forward, you encounter the object – not on the screen but in the space next to the screen. You can run your finger over the nose and around the back of the mask. The surface is smooth, but with a quick computer command, the surface can become rough, rubber, slippery, or nonexistent.

Meet the newest virtual sensation: touch. It is likely to be a big part of your future. In the next few years, everything from computer games to robots to surgical training to movies will have a touch – or "haptic," as it is called by researchers – interface. The blind will be able to feel a computer image. An armchair tourist will be able to run a few fingers over Michaelangelo’s "Pieta." A night at the "feelies," the tactile movies that Aldous Huxley dreamed up 64 years ago in Brave New World, will be possible. With the introduction of a third sense to the virtual world, human interaction with computers takes on a whole new dimension. After all, until now, humans used only their eyes and ears in sampling the world of TV and computers. Keyboard and mouse are just input devices, not ways of experiencing output.

"It was like being buried up to your neck in sand" says Massie, a 25-year-old MIT graduate who came up with the touch interface three years ago while working on his bachelor’s thesis and now runs SensAble Technologies, in Cambridge. "What we learn with our hands is what separates us from other animals."

Humans get very large amounts of information about the physical world by touching things. It’s fast and subliminal. " Quite a bit of the human cortex is devoted to touch, says Mandayam Srinivasan, director of MIT’s Lab for Human and Machine Haptics. "That is precious real estate, so you can how important touch is to us."

Massies’s haptic interface creates tactile sensation by exerting small, precise amounts of force on your finger, a technique known as force-feedback. If, for instance, the computer screen shows a ball sitting inside a box, you can move your thimbled finger forward through empty space until the pointer on the screen encounters the virtual object and the thimble suddenly feels resistance. The computer ball, after all, is just a string of geometry data plotted on x, y and z axes. Inside a black box that Massie designed are tiny motors that send force against your finger in just the way a real ball would. You have to try it to get the feel for it. But trust me, this isn’t some not-ready-for-prime-time gadget like the current generation of virtual-reality visors.

Rob Howe, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Harvard Robotics Lab, believes that Massie’s device is a "quantum leap" in the haptic interface field. In the early days of the phonograph, Howe notes, people were amazed just to hear a voice coming from a box; now, sound fidelity is so good that we concentrate on the music. Similarly, How says, "Tom has packaged his device in a way that computer people, designers, and others are able to think about incorporating feedback in a wide range of applications." Among the most important are for laparoscopic surgery, design of cars and other products—and entertainment, of course. This Christmas, a force-feedback computer joystick developed by Immersion Technologies, of San Jose, California, will be on store shelves for around $150.

OK. It’s time to address what naughty minds are surely thinking by now. At $16,000 and up, Massie’s device is not going to be a household item right away, but don’t be surprised if it’s acquired by some of the same geniuses who mad the videocassette a delivery system for skin flicks and created the endless sex swamp on the Internet. "It’s usually the first thing a guy blurts out after working with the PHANToM," Massie says with a laugh. "’Wow, I know what the killer application is!’"

Happily, however, there are many more productive uses for a haptic interface. On the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, scientists have hooked up one of Massie’s machines to an atomic-force microscope that can map a strand of DNA. Scientists can actually feel each atom. Blind people who study geometry used to have to work with wooden parabolas and sine waves; now they can feel a geometrical pattern on a computer screen as it changes based on different calculations. The visual age is about to meet the tactile age.

"I can imagine not having any sight," says Massie, "or losing my hearing. But without hands, we couldn’t build. We couldn’t even conceive of building something."