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Technology: Thimble gets in touch with reality

作者:阮铡    发布时间:2019-03-02 02:15:00    

By DAVID ANSLEY in MASSACHUSETTS A young engineer has developed a surprisingly simple way to add the element of touch to virtual environments: a thimble. Suspended by aluminium rods just above a desk, and controlled by computer-driven motors, levers and cables, the thimble can exert a variable force on a user’s fingertip, creating the illusion of touching solid objects such as slippery boxes, bouncing balls and even living flesh by mimicking their resistance to pressure and movement. Thomas Massie, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, invented the device, which he calls the Phantom. He believes that when fully developed it will enable users to pick up and juggle nonexistent objects or to feel objects being handled by distant robots. Massie, 23, and his adviser Kenneth Salisbury, have applied for a US patent on the device. Massie has already built and sold five of them for $12 000 each to other researchers. ‘I think it’s going to be important,’ says Nathaniel Durlach, managing editor of the journal Presence, which surveys research in virtual environments and teleoperators. Interest in virtual environments, and especially their entertainment potential, has blossomed as manufacturers of computer hardware and software learn how to create convincing artificial worlds that users can view, hear and move through, using helmets incorporating headphones and tiny televisions. But the mechanisms needed to deliver a high-fidelity sense of touch have lagged behind, spoiling the illusion, because the element of touch is missing. ‘Most of us do not go through life with our hands tied behind our backs,’ says Durlach. Some researchers have made gloves that ‘announce’ hard surfaces by vibrating or inflating tiny air sacs against the fingertips. But they cannot stop a user from putting a fist through a virtual wall. Devices with the necessary ‘force reflection’ tend to be complex motorised gloves or sleeves. Massie’s solution was to greatly simplify the problem. He designed a system that only needs to know and control the location of just a single point in space, represented by the thimble’s tip. The programs can be run on a PC, and the lightweight hardware delivers surprisingly persuasive responses by pressing against or resisting the user’s fingertip. The demonstrations created by Massie include a tabletop version of handball in which the players can sense different balls’ varying mass and inertia, a virtual paintbrush that responds to the brush pressure and speed of movement, a keyboard with keys that feel as springy as real ones, and even a squishy fingertip tour of a rectum and prostate gland – an application intended to suggest the device’s potential for medical training. Massie did not expect the device to give such a realistic effect, but soon decided to patent and market it. ‘I’ve got a product, I guess I should get a company,’ he says. He sold his first models in December. The Phantom’s first users will be researchers in virtual environment laboratories who are looking for a source of realistic touch. One group is working on a US Navy project to instruct submarine pilots and aircraft mechanics. Massie and Salisbury are already planning multifinger versions to allow the user to grasp objects and versions that respond to torque so that a real screwdriver can turn a phantom screw. The first commercial use, Massie believes, will be to enhance the virtual environment programs now used to train surgeons. He also foresees its use by product designers who want to pick up and feel prototypes designed on computers. For the mass market, he envisages students using Phantoms to roam freely through catalogues of irreplaceable museum specimens and to handle electronic replicas of ceramics, stone tools,

 

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