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Haptic technology future - Elearning you can feel?


Most of us probably use haptic technology on a daily basis without even realising. The technology allows feedback to be delivered through touch and is increasingly being incorporated into everyday devices.

You are most likely to have experienced it as the smartphone vibrations that accompany certain functions, or if you are a gamer, you will know haptics as the resistance or rumble from your console if you take a ‘hit’ or lose a life.

The use of haptics within training is not new. It is already being used in simulations and immersive environments in the form of joysticks, controllers, pens and tools. A good example is King’s College London’s HapTEL project (haptics in technology-enhanced learning).

Developed for dentistry students, the system allows the trainee dentist to feel the difference between drilling hard enamel and softer decayed tooth through a special haptic drill. The system is more flexible and cost-effective than the traditional training method of practicing on plastic teeth.

To work, this type of haptic feedback requires the user to be holding the device. But a new innovation means it is now possible for people to get haptic feedback without the need to touch any kind of object.

 A University of Bristol spin-out company called Ultrahaptics has developed a way of providing haptic feedback in mid-air. The technology uses ultrasound to project sensations through the air allowing users to ‘feel’ touchless buttons or interact with virtual objects without needing to wear or touch anything.

What could it mean for elearning?

Consider this - teaching someone to play tennis with a haptic feedback device in an augmented reality environment. The first three dimensions are more or less resolved; stand like this, throw the ball up, swing the racket to hit the ball. Voila!

This will resonate if you were ever taught to play tennis? For hours, you were tutored in the finer points of balance, twisting the racket just right, look up, look down, be in this position when you hit the ball. Where it gets tricky is when to provide instruction, intervention or progression in relation to time. 

Now imagine you and your tennis coach are using a touchless haptic device. Your coach can ‘feel’ your body position, swing, head angle and  ‘feel’ the force of the ball hitting the racket. Then imagine you ‘feeling’ your coach’s approach to hitting the ball.

There is immediacy in this physical feedback which helps to make better sense of the verbal feedback you get from the coach and allows the coach to tailor their approach. I wish this technology was around when I was learning to play tennis!

For elearning developers, the evolution of haptics and their associated augmented reality environments will be an exciting challenge, full of potential. It does not take too much of a leap of imagination to envisage a health professional ‘feeling’ for a lump or growth in a virtual elearning patient, a crane driver training with a mid-air virtual control panel or a beauty consultant perfecting the technique of applying a product to skin.

“Touch has a memory,” wrote the English Romantic poet, John Keats, and unlocking its power within a virtual world could revolutionise the way we interact with the digital training resources of the future.

Author: Aaron Pont, Learning Solutions Architect at Sponge.