PhD student Andi Frank (left) and teaching assistant Saurabh Jadhar

All the Feels

Engineering with the sense of touch.

It’s the buzz on your wrist, the rumble of your game controller, the “button” you “push” at the bottom of your smartphone. These are examples of haptic feedback—tactile sensations generated by a computer or electronic device—and you likely encounter them every day. But the technology has more potential than just alerting you to messages or celebrating 10,000 steps. Haptics is being used in a variety of modern engineering applications, and students are eager to enter the field.

UC San Diego’s first-ever course in haptic interfaces was held this winter quarter, taught by mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Tania Morimoto. “This is a hands-on class designed to teach students how to design, build and program a haptic system,” says Morimoto. “Students learn how they can provide touch feedback to users interacting in virtual environments or with teleoperated robots.”

For instance, graduate students Matthew Kohanfars ’18 and Dylan Steiner ’18 developed an interface to help guide surgeons during a procedure to correct irregular heart rhythms. The surgery, called atrial fibrillation ablation, consists of threading catheters into the heart muscle and using heat to destroy tissue that causes irregular electric signals. A potential complication of the surgery is damage to the patient’s esophagus, so students designed a haptic device to mitigate this hazard. Worn on the surgeon’s forearm, the device applies vibration cues in the direction that the surgeon’s tool needs to move. It also notifies the surgeon of increased temperature at the surgical site, so the procedure can be stopped before heat damages tissue.

PhD students Andi Frank and Aamodh Suresh used the class to build a tool to help the visually impaired navigate crowded spaces, where using a cane can be difficult. The goal was to mimic the sensation of a hand resting on the user’s shoulder, directing them to turn left or right, stop or go. Frank and Suresh accomplished this by building a harness equipped with two small 3D-printed “arms”—one for each shoulder. Morimoto herself donned the remote-controlled harness and closed her eyes as the students remotely guided her around lab benches and chairs. The students ultimately struggled with replicating the exact force pattern these “guiding hands” needed to apply, and in order to simplify the system, they decided to add vibration to signify stop and go.

“I feel I’ve gained a greater appreciation for how the sense of touch can be used as a mode of communication between humans and technology,” says Frank, whose graduate research focuses on different ways robots can interact more naturally with humans. “We don’t think about how much we rely on touch to perceive our environment, but it’s truly one of the strongest senses we have.”

We may take our sense of touch for granted, but students learning to design haptic feedback devices certainly have it top of mind. And given how vital it is to understanding the world around us, the use of haptic technology—every ding, ping and buzz to come—will continue to capture our attention and may end up guiding us in ways never imagined.