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Haptics (pronounced HAP-tiks) is the science of understanding and improving human interaction with the physical world through the sense of touch. Haptic interfaces are computer-controlled electro-mechanical systems that enable a user to feel and manipulate a real, remote, or virtual environment. They often take the form of a lightweight, backdrivable robotic arm like the SensAble Phantom pictured at right, measuring the motion of the human hand and providing appropriate force feedback throughout the interaction.
Haptic interfaces for real interactions can be configured to steady the hand of an eye surgeon during delicate interventions or guide the hand of an individual assembling tiny mechanical components. When applied to teleoperation, haptic interfaces allow the user to dexterously control the motion of a robot manipulator in an unreachable environment, such as the depths of the sea or the operative site in minimally invasive robot-assisted surgery. Lastly, haptic interfaces can be connected to a computational model of a physical environment to facilitate training of manual skills like medical procedures or to augment more general human-computer interactions for education or entertainment.
Haptics research spans a variety of disciplines including Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical and Systems Engineering, Psychology, Neuroscience, and more. Students joining the field should have some background in one of these areas, and they should expect to become educated in many of the rest. Some specific topics that especially interest the Penn Haptics Group are improving the authenticity of haptic feedback from remote and virtual environments, data-driven virtual environment rendering, designing new mechatronic haptic interfaces, improving haptic feedback in surgical and medical simulation, teleoperation with flexible robots, force sensing and tissue characterization in medical instrumentation, human-machine interaction, user interface design, grasping and manipulation.
Professor Kuchenbecker has taught a new class on haptics during Spring of 2008 - MEAM 625: Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environments and Teleoperation. Interested individuals should consult the current syllabus and consider taking the class in the future.