Digital Fabric - Feeling is Believing

The ability to touch virtual fabric will make for a digitally sensual treat in the near future

In a pioneering breakthrough announced in February 2008, European researchers claim they have created an interface that allows humans to touch a medium that feels just like real fabric. The software, linked to a 'tactile device', has enormous potential for surgery, shopping, design, gaming - essentially any human-machine interaction.

The revolutionary HAPTEX digital fabric interface lets you actually feel 'virtual' textiles. The output of several years of research, the HAPTEX system is basically a sensor-laden glove hooked to visual representation equipment the likes of which has never been seen before, and it reproduces the 'experience' of different fabrics with astounding realism.

HAPTEX roughly stands for "Haptic sensing of virtual textiles". 'Haptic' is the scientific term for the study of touching behavior in humans.

This fantastic technology was achieved through the intense work of a consortium of five organizations. Over the past decade, HAPTEX Project researchers studied precise measurements taken by sophisticated equipment of the tensile, bending and stretching properties of various textiles. In the last three years, they created a model, then built the prototype and its software.

'We have a working prototype device, and we have validated it. It gives a reliable and reproducible sensation of real fabrics in a virtual world,' says Professor Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, a 'reality augmentation' specialist from the MIRALab research center at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

Like video running on a computer or via the Internet, HAPTEX's visual 'delivery' system provides a high resolution 'representation' of fabric 'movement' at the speed of 20 frames per second. But, the touch element of the system is much more sensitive, at least 1,000 samples per second are required to recreate the feeling of fabric.

Two software components govern the process. One application controls the overall properties of the material being recreated. A second program maps the sensations felt on the skin. The result is a detailed visual reproduction of the fabric that is 'touched' on screen, and the sensation passed through to the wearer of the digital glove.

Professor Magnenat-Thalmann notes, 'That was another major problem because the two [components] must be in sync, or the sensation will not be realistic.' Like a video with the audio out of sync, any latency (lag time) between the visual and the sensual destroys the effect.

Synchronizing these elements was the main challenge for the researchers. 'We had major jobs to do with the hardware, too. Nobody has combined a force-feedback device (like a vibrating game steering wheel or controller) with a tactile one,' reports Magnenat-Thalmann.

The HAPTEX group developed an electronic glove covered in an 'exoskeleton' of pin-sized sensors that translate sensations to two fingers. The glove itself simulates bending and stretching of fabric, while the pins convey the texture. This information is combined in database to give a sensory impression of both vision and touch.

Independent reviewers are highly impressed with the HAPTEX's results, but Magnenat-Thalmann says the consortium has not yet reached its goal. 'Originally, our vision was to create a system that allowed users to distinguish between, say, cotton, wool and silk in a blind test. The system is not that sensitive yet.'

The research team hopes to secure funding for a second project that will take the device from prototype to full commercial product. If successful, it will be the very first of its kind.

There is enormous application and market potential for this new-born technology. The textile industry and online shopping are the first and most obvious targets, but Magnenat-Thalmann also sees applications in gaming, where it could be used to make virtual worlds even more realistic.

You may not suspect it, but HAPTEX is a tremendously exciting advancement in the 'digital' experience. More than anything that has come before, the HAPTEX glove sensors provide the ability to 'digitally sense' texture, shape, thickness, and elasticity, among other object elements. This technology can be extended to a broad range of in-game experiences, it's not just for 'fabric'. This is the tip of an enormous in-game sensory iceberg.

Visualization of digital data, which are, technically, the components of any computer program or game, has long been studied and tweaked toward 3-D perfection. We have live, interactive audio, too. One large, missing piece is the ability to feel objects in a digital world. The HAPTEX technology promises to put the user into a game 'world' more effectively than any vibrating sensory game controller or dance pad can.

Soon, you'll open virtual doors by actually 'turning' a knob or throwing a latch. You will pick up a game sword, feel its weight, feel it slice through the air, feel it contact your target, and feel it flex as it does so. You'll be able to touch another avatar's body - gently, or less than gently. And, you will be able to shop for and 'wear' clothing made of digital denim or silk, or go for a 'test walk' in brand new digital leather boots.

This writer believes the remaining sensory simulations of taste and smell are a much smaller hurdle than the digital 'tactile' experience. Once HAPTEX becomes commercially available, the sense of touch will help close the gap between the virtual and the real. Being online will never be the same.

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While you may not be able to feel it just yet, you can see a HAPTEX system demonstration in a video from MIRALab at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ibr-1qe6xFw

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