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Haptography: Capturing The Feel of a Surface

By Wesley Fenlon

We all appreciate a little haptic feedback, but what if that feedback could replicate the feeling of a real surface?

Photography just hasn't been the same since the instant Polaroid gave way to the instant digital image. The ritual of shaking a photo as it fades into existence has no digital analogue. Even when snapping a Polaroid was about capturing an image, it still added a small physical, textural element to photography. Mechanical engineering professor Katherine Kuchenbecker wants to do more than that with the field of digital photography; in fact, she wants to develop the field of haptography, focusing on recording the feeling of touch. Touching a photo will no longer be a physical perk. It'll be the entire point.

Kuchenbecker developed a stylus-like sensor to record the feeling of objects it tracks over. Pushing the sensor through sand, for example, would register the amount of force required to push through the sand, the vibration felt when the sand offers up resistance, and the path the sensor takes through the sand. The collected data will then be loaded into software. Using another stylus on a touchscreen device, like a tablet, will bring that data into play, so suddenly a virtual sandbox has the same resistance and granularity as a real one.

Photo credit: UPenn

With the stylus involved, "feeling" a virtual surface isn't truly the same as touching it. You can't feel the subtle differences between types of cotton. But you could tell the difference between cotton and silk, or get a feel for the roughness of a kitchen tile. Online shopping is just one field that could hugely benefit from haptography.

We can imagine, too, telesurgery and surgery simulations becoming easier with haptic data involved. Check out Kuchenbecker's short talk on haptography below if you've still got a soft spot for shaking out your photographs.