While researching the NOVA scienceNOW segment on "augmented reality," premiering this Wednesday at 10 pm as part of NOVA scienceNOW's "What Will the Future Be Like," I came across some fascinating research on the new science of haptics. Haptics actually enables us to "touch" objects in a virtual world. As Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, describes it, haptics is "the science of improving human interaction in an augmented world through the power of touch." Imagine what online shopping will be like in the future, when, thanks to the power of haptics, you will be able to feel a pair of corduroys before you buy them!

But Kuchenbecker thinks haptics will help us with more than just online shopping. She wants to use it to save lives, starting with a robotic surgical system called da Vinci. This groundbreaking technology gives surgeons the ability to operate less invasively with the help of robotic arms. Surgeons currently operate the da Vinci by looking through a tiny camera while using game-like joysticks to manipulate the robotic arms. The system allows surgeons to cut with incredible precision, but there's a problem: in the process, they lose their sense of touch.

"Robotic surgery systems enable the doctor to operate on a patient through tiny incisions, which is a great benefit for recovery," says Kuchenbecker, "but current systems don't let the doctor feel what the tools are touching."

Kuchenbecker has found a clever way around this, by enhancing da Vinci with haptics. In the video below, watch as David Pogue takes it for a test drive. After viewing Kuchenbecker's da Vinci in action, read on for more on the science behind how it works.

After sensors record the vibrations of the surgical instruments, tiny motors called actuators reproduce them at the surgeon's hand. "Every time the robotic instruments touch each other," says Kuchenbecker, "or touch something in the operative field inside the patient, those vibrations travel up the tool and we measure them with our sensors and we immediately recreate them at the surgeon's hand so they can feel it almost as though they were holding the tools themselves."

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Terri Randall

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