Brussels, 31 Oct 2002
Scientists in London and Boston have taken part in an experiment over the Internet to demonstrate the latest in touch technology despite being separated by more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km).
Participants in the experiment used a computer and a small robotic arm instead of a more traditional mouse. Developed by Sensable Technologies the arm had, at its end, a device resembling a thick pen. This is grasped by the experimenter to get a feel for what is happening in the virtual world. It also transmits their movements to other participants.
The arm, known as a Phantom, gives users the sensation of touch by exerting precisely controlled forces on the fingers. The participants could directly feel whether others are pulling, pushing or manipulating computer generated objects in a shared virtual world.
Professor Mel Slater from the computer science lab at University College London and head of one of the research teams taking part said: 'You can not only feel the resulting force, but you can also get a sense of the quality of the object you're feeling, whether it's soft or hard, wood-like or fleshy. It enhances the sense of being together even though the physical distances involved are vast.'
In the groundbreaking experiment, the participants shared a view of a virtual room containing a large black box. Their task was to work together to lift the black box despite being separated by the Atlantic.
One of the biggest problems the experimenters had to overcome was the delay caused by sending data over the net. Delays of less than 130 milliseconds are needed to ensure participants can work together well as longer delays between action and reaction in the virtual world cause participants to struggle to cope and collaborate.
Long-range sensing is unlikely to arrive on home computers soon as it needs very high-speed networks to minimise delay.