An Internet with Lots of Feeling

Ralf Steinmetz
Ralf Steinmetz

Holding things on the Internet – how can I even begin to imagine that?

Steinmetz: The haptic Internet works with force feedback. For example, if you cut a sheet of paper with scissors, you sense the resistance of the paper. That gives you a feeling of how you have to cut the paper. Sensor-equipped devices can record this force feedback so that it can be reproduced as digital data.

What’s the point of the haptic Internet?

Steinmetz: The point is simplified communication. My goal is seamless communication, a scenario in which networked devices support people who want to interact with each other, such as members of a project team who are located in different cities. Of course, that should happen without requiring any action from the participants. Technical innovations that simplify life are needed, and the haptic Internet would be a tremendous step in that direction. Just imagine – you could see and touch a camera on the Internet. You can feel its heft in your hands and touch the buttons to see how they work.

What would seamless communication look like?

Steinmetz: In the case of a camera purchase, seamless communication would mean that you don’t need the talents of an IT expert or have to endure the complicated installation and operation of extra devices to be able to feel over the Internet. As a comparison, consider Bertha Benz, the wife of Carl Benz, the inventor of the automobile. At the end of the nineteenth century, she had to clean the fuel lines of her car with her hair pin after what was then a long trip between the German cities Mannheim and Pforzheim – about 100 kilometers. Today’s computer technology is like automotive technology was like then. Anyone sitting in front of a computer needs technical knowledge to set up the system and use it optimally, to understand error messages, and to correct any problems. At the very least, a user needs to know someone who understands computers. What we urgently need for modern communication is a self-organizing and reliable technology, just like today’s automobiles, which are easy to operate.

What kinds of scenarios would use virtual touch?

Steinmetz: Computer games already offer simple and rather inexpensive applications. This area will continue to develop very quickly. Haptics will also play a role in surgery. Particularly for minimally invasive operations, which are increasingly replacing traditional operations, the sense of touch is extremely important because sight is limited. As in the example of the scissors, medical students learn how to feel specific organs without having to try out their skills on living patients. In the future, endoscopic devices could be operated remotely. If a tumor is discovered in a patient in a small hospital in northern Germany and no specialist is on site, local doctors could contact the Charité clinic in Berlin. A specialist could touch the tumor and even operate on the patient remotely, over the computer. In the long term, the haptic Internet will revolutionize online shopping. We will be able to feel the fur of a stuffed animal that we want to buy for our children or feel the fabric of a new suit.

What technological devices are required to distinguish between rough or smooth materials – to be able to feel over the Internet?

Steinmetz: Let’s stick with the example of a suit. The salesperson wears a glove that is outfitted with sensors and connected to a computer and touches the suit. Right now, this kind of glove looks like something out of Edward Scissorhands. In the short or long term, the gloves will become more comfortable. The salesperson makes the data captured with the glove available on the Internet. A customer needs a similar glove and a haptic player, something akin to a video player. The haptic player would transmit the touch data to the glove so that customers can feel the fabric – just like in person. Simple, low-cost gloves with just a few sensors are already available for computer games.

Why do you think that a standard format is important for the haptic Internet?

Steinmetz: A widely used standard format, like JPG for photographs, enables communication with a wider group of people. We want to find a format that works like the standard for digital photographs: a format that maps and transmits a sense of touch so that as many end devices as possible understand the data. Professor El Saddik is the absolute expert on this data format: haptic-xml.

What constraints do you see for data transfer?

Steinmetz: Right now, the biggest problem is the quality of real-time transmission. Force feedback is linked to a small window of time. For example, if you sense the resistance of the paper a second later when trying to cut it, it’s too late and the paper is ruined. The same applies to operations and other applications.

We make telephone calls over the Internet and use Webcams to see our communications partners. Will we soon be able to feel a handshake?

Steinmetz: Yes, but personal contact will also remain essential. Video conferences have not done away with the need for business travel. The Internet and the haptic Internet do not replace personal communication. They simplify it.