Touching Research: Haptics and Signal Processing

By John Edwards

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appeared in the March 2014 issue of the IEEE Signal Processing magazine.
Click here to read the entire article.

Haptic interfaces are computer-controlled electro-mechanical systems that enable a user to feel and manipulate a real, remote, or virtual environment. Current research projects in haptics are investigating ways to help people interact more intuitively with computers, robots, and various other types of electronic and electromechanical systems. (Two recent articles highlighted on the Portal previously, one on a new probe for surgeons, the other on a bionic hand, are evidence of a growing interest in haptics research.)

When used in conjunction with a video display, haptics can help users perform complex tasks requiring precise hand-eye coordination, such as surgery, rehabilitation, flying a drone, or manipulating very large or very small objects, ranging from space vehicles to microscopic organisms. Consumers are also benefitting from haptics technology when playing video games that enable users to feel as well as see and hear play interactions. Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre, founder of the International Society for Haptics, notes that signal processing is crucial in haptic system design and operation.

Researchers at the University of Texas (UT) at Dallas are developing a haptics-based technology that promises to make it possible for physical therapists and other health-care professionals to work with patients regardless of their location. The system utilizes multiple three-dimensional (3-D) cameras to create avatars of both the care provider and patient, and then places them inside a virtual space where they can interact with each other in a realistic fashion.

The Bristol Robotics Laboratory haptic robot palpitates artificial tissue samples. (Photo courtesy of Bristol Robotics Laboratory.)

“Our technology allows real-time capturing, transmission and rendering of 3-D avatars of multiple human actors as well as force feedback,” says Balakrishnan “Prabha” Prabhakaran, professor of computer science at UT Dallas and the project’s principle investigator. More sophisticated haptic technologies are currently under development, says Prabhakaran. “What we are trying to do is build our own haptic device using resistance motors and microcontrollers,” he notes.

Developing a haptics technology that can help a surgeon operate with great precision, even when using a robot as the primary surgical tool, is the goal of researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a joint venture of the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. The BRL researchers aim to give surgeons who operate with robots the ability to feel as well as see inside their patients.

Researchers at France’s Universit√© Pierre et Marie Curie have developed “haptic optical tweezers” that will enable microscope users to manipulate samples within worlds up to a million times smaller than humans. The tool promises to help scientists explore microscopic worlds by sensing and exerting piconewton-scale forces, allowing improved micromanipulation and microassembly dexterity.

Gabriel Robles-De-La-Torre believes that technology developers in a variety of fields are now acquiring a growing respect for haptics, realizing that the sense of touch is as essential in many situations as vision and hearing. If this trend continues to build, it should lead to haptics finding a place in a wider number of systems and applications.


John Edwards ( is a technology writer based in the Phoenix area.