Eggheads Invent Tele-Petting 

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By Lakshmi Sandhana  |   Also by this reporter

02:00 AM May. 17, 2005 PT

Researchers have developed a cybernetic system to allow physical interaction over the internet. The system allows touching and feeling of animals or other humans in real time, but it's first being tried out on -- chickens.

Built by a wacky group of researchers at the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore, the Touchy Internet works as follows:

You walk into your office, where a hollow, chicken-shaped doll sits on a mechanical positioning table close to your computer.

The doll whirs to life as soon as you switch on the system, duplicating the motion of a real chicken in the backyard whose movements are being captured by a webcam.

Fondling the doll translates into touching the real fowl.

Touch sensors attached to the doll convey tactile information to a nearby PC through radio signals. The data is sent over the internet to a remote computer near the chicken; the remote computer triggers tiny vibration motors in a lightweight haptic jacket worn by the fowl.

The chicken feels your touch in the exact same place where the replica was stroked.

"This is the first human-poultry interaction system ever developed," said professor Adrian David Cheok, the leader of the team, who has been developing the technology for nearly two years.

"We understand the perceived eccentricity of developing a system for humans to interact with poultry remotely, but this work has a much wider significance," he added.

Promoting the welfare of un-caressed chickens is not the only goal here.

Remote haptic interaction could allow people who are allergic to dogs and cats to caress their pets remotely. Used in zoos, it may allow visitors to pat a lion or scratch a bear. A security officer could remotely and silently signal a dog wearing a haptic suit, giving the animal instructions by simply touching it, which could be useful in rescue work or homeland security applications.

There's also the option of wearing special shoes with electric sensors that receive information about the chicken's leg movements from sensors embedded in the jacket -- you get to feel an electric tingle in your leg every time the chicken takes a step.

"Remote dance synchronization is a real possibility," said Lee Shang Ping, a fellow team member. "Students learning how to dance can wear these special shoes, which will stimulate their muscles when their dance teacher moves her legs."

Wearing a 3-D virtual-reality headset will even allow you to view a live, realistic 3-D image of the chicken running around in a virtual garden on your desktop, provided you are willing to bear the expense of installing a number of cameras that capture the 3-D motion of your pet.

The technology's real potential is ushering in a tele-haptic future where human-to-human interaction is vastly enhanced.

The team is investigating the possibility of "internet hugging" and plans to develop an advanced haptic suit for humans, which will incorporate tiny air sacs, compressors and valves to impart a "high-fidelity" feeling of being hugged.

Both parties in the internet hug would have to wear haptic suits, and they would have to cuddle a human doll or a pillow embedded with pressure sensors. Adding a heartbeat and body-heat sensors would provide more intimacy.

When showcased at the Version 05 arts festival in Chicago, viewers suggested using the system for internet sex. Experts dismiss the whole idea as silly.

"Current haptic displays typically allow a user to interact with a virtual or remote environment through a tool," says Allison M. Okamura, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. "Hence, the systems feel like you are poking at the world through a stick. A major challenge is providing the user with more delicate tactile sensations, such as feeling that occurs when one draws her finger over a rough or smooth surface. This kind of realism is difficult to achieve."

Cyrus Shahabi, director of the Information Laboratory at the University of Southern California, agreed. He said the ability to feel the texture of an object remotely is at least a decade away.

"This is a science in its infancy, and the current generation of devices are not suitable for such a purpose," added Margaret McLaughlin, a professor of communication at USC. "Further, devices that can render touch with any fidelity are far too expensive to become consumer items."

Cheok's goal at present is relatively modest. The team plans to include bi-directional audio in the system and replace the on-off-type vibration motors with systems that provide a more continuous touch. He also hopes to incorporate technology that will measure the strength of a person's touch.

The team will begin work on the human version of the haptic suit in August, and estimates it will take about a year to deliver the first prototype.

End of story

More stories written by Lakshmi Sandhana

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