The Haptic Touch

Robotic glove

Two new patented inventions by Hakan Gurocak can help advance the digital experience.

One major difference between hands-on experiences and digital experiences is the sense of touch. When you go shopping at a retail store, for example, you can handle an item before you buy it. But when you shop online, you can only see a picture.

That’s bound to change, because haptics technology—technology that conveys a sense of touch—is already here. You can find it in the automotive industry, in medical training, in videogames and even on your smartphone’s keypad. In the future, the technology has potential for use in surgery, physician training and many other quality-of-life applications.

So far, however, it has not spread to everyday desktop computer use.

Hakan Gurocak is out to help change that. Gurocak is professor and director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at WSU Vancouver.

Haptic technology relies on actuators—a generic term describing motors, electronic brakes and pneumatic systems. Actuators create vibrations or force that generates a haptic sensation.

“One of the biggest challenges in building futuristic interfaces is current actuator technology,” Gurocak said.

Haptic interfaces are devices that provide force and tactile feedback to the user as they interact with objects in a computer-generated virtual world.

Last summer, Gurocak received his first two U.S. patents—one to help improve electronically controlled brakes, and the other for an improved internal design that will allow for a much smaller but more powerful actuator. These two patents are a big step toward haptic interfaces—possibly something wearable, like a type of glove—that will expand applications of the technology.

“It’s very exciting to me personally, and it was quite a learning process to go from ‘I have an idea, I wonder if it would work,’ and ending up with a U.S. patent,” Gurocak said.

Gurocak worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization in Pullman to disclose the invention and file the patent application. The Office of Commercialization will pursue additional commercialization activities, including licensing the patent to an industry partner or a start-up company.

The Future of Haptics

Gurocak named a couple of examples that illustrate the potential of haptics. For instance, while robotic surgery is already in use, it is limited by the lack of “force feedback” to the surgeon. Haptic technology can provide that feedback, enabling the surgeon to “feel” inside the patient’s body as he or she interacts with tissue while operating the surgical robot.

In medical training, anatomy studies currently involve cadavers, but the number of cadavers is limited. Many universities want a haptic interface that would make it realistic for digital models to be used instead. Students would interact with a digital patient, but it would feel like the real thing.

Educating Tomorrow's Inventors

The future of haptic technology depends on continuing training of new inventors with new ideas. Gurocak’s former graduate students are listed as co-inventors on the patents. Doruk Senkal and Berk Gonenc were involved in the first patent, and Mustafa Alkan in the second. Randy Bullion, former graduate student, built the prototype haptic glove shown in the photo.

Gurocak is delighted about the beneficial “side effect” of his patents— “not only developing the technology but in the process developing a highly skilled technology workforce who got to work on these things and contributed,” he said. “Regardless of the patents, that’s what universities do.”

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This article is summarized from Northwest Crimson & Gray Magazine

Northwest Crimson & Gray is the semiannual magazine of WSU Vancouver, produced to highlight the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in Southwest Washington. To read the full story, download or view the Spring 2016 issue online (PDF). You can also subscribe for free.

Related: School of Engineering and Computer Science