"Feel me: What the new science of touch says about ourselves" on The New Yorker

Check out this article on The New Yorker, which features Dr. Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, "the Queen of Haptics," her students, and the recent Haptics conference that she chaired in Philadelphia!


Feel Me

What the new science of touch says about ourselves.

By: Adam Gopnik | May 16, 2016 Issue

...Heather Culbertson, now a postdoc at Stanford, worked at Penn in its famous GRASP lab—the acronym stands for General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception—and she has returned to Philadelphia to show off her own invention. It is a haptic system that can create the illusion of a hundred distinct textures when you hold it and drag it against a neutral surface. Metal mesh, metal shelving, sandpaper, linoleum, bubble wrap, cardboard, coffee filter, painted brick: holding a pen-shaped utensil in your right hand, you touch the desired texture’s name and then drag the utensil across a countertop, say, and in your fingers you feel exactly the sensation that you would feel if the tool were being dragged across the material you specified. You feel wood; you feel brick; you feel paper. More astonishing, the virtual textures change in feeling, as real ones do, depending on the force and speed with which you move the tool across them.

The Queen of Haptics is Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, the brilliant Stanford-trained engineer who oversees the haptics group at the GRASP lab and supervised Culbertson’s work. The daughter of a developmental psychologist—and, one is not surprised to learn, a member of the Stanford volleyball team that twice won N.C.A.A. titles—she recognizes the gratifyingly large number of women engineers in haptics. (It was Kuchenbecker who trained Culbertson, then passed her on to her own supervisor, the formidable Allison Okamura, at Stanford.) She is understandably reluctant to say that women study feelings better because they have more of them than men, but then she more or less says it. “We have a long tradition of women as team leaders in haptics,” she volunteers—the founder of the GRASP lab is a legendary roboticist named Ruzena Bajcsy—“and I think it’s fair to say that women are drawn to areas of engineering with obvious human interface. Places where what you’re doing obviously reaches people, touches them, you might say.” Cartoon “Then the messenger shouldn’t have been such a jerk.”

She likes the potential of haptic devices to serve both pros and amateurs. Heather Culbertson’s tool allows designers to choose fabrics at a distance and someone searching for clothes online to feel the linen of a summer shirt while sitting at her computer. “What Heather and I did was to take a haptic camera—a touch-based camera—and a swatch of material, and record ten seconds of interaction, dragging the tool back and forth, fast and then slow, light and then heavy,” she explains. “But the key to creating a compelling illusion that you’re touching a real object is that the sensations you feel match all the motions that you make. So we cut that recording up into tiny pieces, fifty milliseconds or a hundred milliseconds of touch, so that we got the minute details right—exactly what you felt on canvas when you moved fast but pushed lightly, and the next time, when you were going slower but pushing harder.” The illusion of texture arises when the vibration pattern is played back. The sensing stylus you hold, which resembles a very fat ballpoint pen with a cable attached to its rump, transmits patterned vibrations to your fingers. In a way, it’s something like the needle in the groove of an old-fashioned vinyl album, only it plays back into your fingers rather than into your ears. “When you change how hard you are pressing or how fast you are moving, the spectrum of the vibration waveform changes to match the spectral changes we measured during the original data recording,” Kuchenbecker says. “It’s like recording a certain natural sound, like a waterfall, and then being able to generate a synthetic sound that sounds the same but goes on forever and never repeats, so it’s not just a looped recording. The trick is that we constantly change the properties of the waveform to match the exploration conditions, like adjusting how fast the waterfall seems to be flowing. And it creates a fluid, moving, three-dimensional illusion of texture.” Choose your texture, drag the tool across nothing, and you feel touch plus time, which is all that texture is.

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