The sense of touch is so pervasive in our life that we usually forget about it. It is also a very complex sense connecting the various surfaces of our body to our brain in such a way that we can say it creates a cerebral map of our body. Sensations arriving from the various areas are integrated with our contextual representation and create the perceived sensation, a mixture of physical and emotional ones.
Recreating the sensation of touch is quite difficult and technology has not been up to the task for decades. Much easier to provide sound and video. But in these last two decades sophisticated technology has been put to work to create, in very specific domain, touch sensations. The technologies used are expensive and cumbersome. Progresses have been made to reduce their cost and to make them more portable. There is still a long way to go.
The first fields of application have been simulated or remote surgery, controlling certain types of robots (like those used to disable mines in mine fields). Gaming has come next although the sensations provided were limited, more related to the experience of forces and resistant.
Now some scientists in Japan at the Gifu University and at the Mouri Laboratory (also located in Gifu) have somehow inverted the paradigm. Rather than using touch creating interfaces to control a robot they are proposing to use a robot to create tactile sensation.
The robot, HIRO III, looks like a hand to which the person’s finger are strapped on. The robotic fingers simulate the textures of surfaces, the contour of an object and its weight. This provides the person’s with a very accurate tactile sensation.
The realism is increased by viewing a screen that matches with images the tactile sensation. You see the object at the same time that you can feel it.
At the moment it is being experimented to teach medical students how to carry out tactile screening for breast cancer.
Although this system provides much better sensations we are still confronted with high technology cost and with a cumbersome apparatus.
To get rid of these two issues we should probably wait for progress in nanotechnology, at least for pure tactile sensation (the sense of weight and resistance cannot be approached with nanotech). A nanotechnology layer, vibrating at over 1 KHz is able to provide sensations like smooth, rough, humid, dry. It is not too far away, may be by 2013 we will have it on top of our cell phones screen.