Haptics: The New Science of Touch

Good news for the spa industry:  The science of touch is exploding.  Through my own work in the spa world, I’ve always been an advocate of getting more science to support the work of healing through touch.   Previously on this blog, I’ve had articles about the effects of massage on health (see “Get Thee to a Spa:  Important New Research on the Benefits of Massage,”) the healing effect of “kangaroo care” on infants (see “Miracle Healing Through Touch”, and the power of touch to communicate emotions (see “Hands on Research:  The Science of Touch” by guest blogger Dacher Keltner.)  But the new science of touch is breaking into frontiers I never imagined possible. 

There is a growing body of scientists in a burgeoning new field that is looking at how humans interact with their environment through touch.  The field is called “haptics” (from the Greek word for touch) and while you may not realize it yet, it will slowly start changing the way we do . . . well, everything.   In fact, if you have traded in your Blackberry for an iphone or your netbook for an ipad, then you are already experiencing a new interface with the world through your sense of touch.

The first time I learned about about haptic technology was when I purchased my new Samsung Fascinate from the Verizon store (an Android smartphone.)  “It features haptic feedback technology,” the salesman told me, in that annoying way that young computer geeks have of explaining things in language that didn’t exist ten years ago.  I had no idea what he was talking about as I smiled, nodded, and handed him my credit card.

Haptic feedback,” as it turns out is technology that interacts with the user by giving sensory data back through the sense of touch.  It started in fighter planes with joystick vibrations that help the pilot to “feel” the flaps of the plane and warn pilots of dangerous flight conditions.  Today, haptic feedback is used in flight simulators, medical training simulators, and of course, to allow me to type more intuitively on my Android touch screen (the screen vibrates slightly each time I “tap” a key.)

Perhaps the most common use of haptics in today’s world is through video games, which you will have experienced if you felt the remote jiggle in your hand while striking a tennis ball with your Wii remote controller.  Nintendo 64’s “Rumble Pak” or Sony Playstation’s “Dual Shock” are other examples.  And (like many technologies,) video games are driving further development.

A recent article in The Pennsylvania Gazette (“Touching the Virtual Frontier” by Trey Popp) delved into the work of Katherine Kuchenbecker in the Haptics Lab at University of Pennsylvania.  In her lab, graduate students work on developing body suits that can simulate the feelings of arrow, sword and gunshot wounds in virtual reality video games such as “Half-Life 2” (these have military training applications too, by the way.)

But it’s not all fun and video games in the Haptics Lab.  There are also applications for health care: creating simulators that allow students to practice procedures while “feeling” what they would feel in a real surgery; allowing doctors to get more tactile feedback from their laparoscopic instruments; or helping amputees to “feel” their prosthetic limbs.

So what does all of this mean for the worlds of spa and massage?  It’s probably too soon to tell, but the possibilities are endless.  Imagine more sophisticated ways for therapists to learn how to read the cues from their clients’ bodies as they are massaging them.  Imagine creating massage tools that provide the same therapeutic benefit as “hot stones” for example, but without minimizing the therapists ability to intuitively feel where the tension in the body is. 

If you really want to stretch your imagination, think of a future where the massage therapist and the client don’t have to be in the same room (or even the same country  . . . get your virtual Thai massage from someone at the Wat Po Thai Massage school next to the “golden Buddha” in Bangkok.)  Imagine wearing a suit to haptically “record” your favorite massage, and then donning another suit to “play it back” later.  Imagine running a wand over a knot or a lump in your muscles that records it into a digital file so you can send it to your therapist or your doctor for diagnosis.

One thing is clear, as the science on touch continues to grow, our sense of touch becomes even more important as a window for two way communication and interaction with the rest of the world.  For those who have been concerned that we have been sacrificing “high touch” for “high tech,” don’t worry . . .  we will be both.

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6 Responses to Haptics: The New Science of Touch

  1. Sara Firman April 13, 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post!

    This does seem to have astonishing implications. On first glance, I’m hoping it would teach us more about ourselves and our sensing abilities, rather than doing things for us that some have the potential to do at far more sophisticated levels than I suspect any technology ever will.

    It does seem to have potential for teaching a therapist, say, to palpate tissue for otherwise virtually imperceptible shifts in quality. But I’m guessing it can’t simulate something that is not already detectable by a real person, since that must be used to set the ‘base’ line?

    That said, it might be able to detect something that is happening in an area that we can’t otherwise reach (like the internal body) but for that we’d have to guess at the sensation felt there wouldn’t we? How does the technology ‘know’ what something remote feels like?

    If eventually we rely on the technology to feel things for us instead of discovering and developing our own skills, then we might lose our innate abilities. The machine’s ‘intelligence’ defining what we should be feeling instead of what we actually and individually are feeling?

    Unless we are individually hooked into it somehow? Unless it learns to feel what we feel? I’m not sure our science will ever acheive that level of translation. Actually, I suppose I hope it won’t, since I love the mystery of life’s sensations too much.

    Just as watching films and playing video games can place us a step away from the real world which cannot be stopped with a switch or reprogrammed to suit our personal preferences, such technology might put us a step further away too. Is control really and always good for us?

    In the article, it was suggested that for injuries, like gun shot,’simulating that in a very realistic way — but not hurting the soldiers at the time — is very important’. As I understand it, sensations we imagine intensely enough CAN affect us in ways that may manifest physically.

    It might be incorrect to say that this experience does not hurt someone even if it is virtual. It might be the interpretation of the sensation that matters most. Some people have ‘high’ pain thresholds, others are very intolerant of strong sensation etc.

    Perhaps, just by asking plenty of questions about context and purpose and long-term implications – and preserving respect for the mystery of what it is to be a living, feeling being – we will be able to create a technology that serves us rather than has us serving it. I’m not sure.

    It’s a perennial human question …

  2. Louisa April 14, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    Jeremy, do you think the future also holds promise of getting a virtual massage from say someone like…umm Brad Pitt?

    Once again, great post and very interesting new ideas!

  3. Jeremy McCarthy April 15, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Thanks Sara, You bring up some good ideas for the possibilities (and some of the challenges) of this kind of technology. I think all of the things you mention are in the realm of possibility. We have to realize that the technology of every generation would have seemed impossible (or magical) to the generation before. So what we will be able to do in the future will be beyond our wildest imagination.

    I agree with you that every technological advance includes some kind of sacrifice that has to be considered. There is an “opportunity cost” for our investments in new technology. I just finished reading a thought provoking book by Matt Ridley called “The Rational Optimist” and he argues that as much as everyone complains about technology and reminisces about the “good ole days” the world is actually much better off and humans have a better lifestyle now than they ever have. His arguments are pretty compelling and it does give me a better appreciation for how we are changing/evolving as a species. We are gaining in some areas, losing in others, but on the whole getting better and better.

    One thing I think about since getting involved in blogging and social media sites like twitter is how much I am learning. I read WAY more than I ever have before due to the content delivery systems that we have online that manage to get just the info that I am interested in delivered right to my mobile device(s) wherever I happen to be. I am willing to bet that I am learning exponentially more than my parents did or my grandparents did. This leads me to believe that society as a whole will be ramping up in intelligence very quickly in the next several decade and gives me hope that we will find solutions for the challenges that new technologies bring.

    Interesting ideas to think about.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy April 15, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    Louisa, Good question, and I answered it to a certain extent in my response to Sara above. But I will add that video games and pornography are huge driving forces behind new technologies, so in the future, you will probably be able to do just about anything you want with Brad Pitt (virtually, that is.) Thanks for reading!

  5. Corinna April 20, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Although the possibilities for enhancing human awareness are exciting, the article’s concluding speculations sadden me. A masseuse is not only a set of skillful hands. A masseuse is a person, and the beauty of massage is that both participants are present and focused in the moment. It is a unique social experience, intimate but not necessarily sexual. Replacing one of the participants with a machine fundamentally alters the experience, and given how isolated our society is becoming, I am not convinced it is an improvement. Neither does recording a favorite massage make sense. Replaying the massage that worked so magically the last time will only remind me that, unlike a machine, my body changes and has different needs from day to day. Even if a machine could sense these physiological changes and respond accordingly, it does not care why I suddenly have more tension in my shoulders today compared to last week. There may be benefits to replacing people in our lives with nonhuman proxies, but I don’t think that, in this particular instance, they outweigh the loss of human connection.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy April 20, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    Hi Corinna, Thank you for your comments. Actually, I agree with everything you say. I did not mean to imply that this technology would ever replace or even measure up to actual human touch. The analogy I would use is the way we are able to transmit messages digitally using text and images, we may some day be able to digitally transmit our sense of touch. This will never be the same as the real thing, in the same way “texting” is not the same as having a face to face conversation. You are able to get the message across but you miss out on the nuances of body language, facial expressions, etc.

    As you point out, touch transmitted digitally would also lose a lot in translation. But I think there is a lot that can potentially be gained by having technology like this. A proxy for touch can serve when distance or danger prevent actual touch from taking place. And the fact that technology and innovation are becoming more and more focused on our sense of touch gives me hope that we will come to understand touch better, and appreciate its power more than we have in the past.

    Thanks for reading and for clarifying a very important point.

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