Engineering Touch

Researchers are incorporating touch into robotics

Engineers and scientists in Northwestern’s Neuroscience and Robotics Lab (NxR) are incorporating the sense of touch into robotics. A multifaceted collaboration of faculty and students across Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the lab focuses on research at the nexus of robotics, neuroscience, bio-inspired robotics and robotics-inspired neuromechanics.

Why care about touch? Our sense of touch helps us navigate through much of our daily lives: It helps us make our way through dark rooms, lets us adjust the car radio without looking at the dial, and tells us when something is too hot or too cold.

But because touch involves a complicated chorus of sensors, skin, muscles and the nervous system, it has been difficult to incorporate touch within modern electronics and robotics. Our smooth touchscreens, for example, provide no texture feedback, while robotic arms and hands lag far behind the subtle manipulations of human hands.

Engineers in NxR are leaders in the field of haptics, the study of touch interaction. They are building technology that produces tactile feedback through forces and vibrations. Their haptics technologies make flat, glossy touchscreens feel bumpy and textured, allowing users to “feel” the scalloped edges of a key or the smooth swipe of a turned page. The technology has already been used in an app to help visually impaired users “feel” the contents of a photo and in an audio-tactile display for acoustic touch (see video).

This year, Northwestern hosted the World Haptics Conference, where a record number of researchers and scholars from around the globe gathered to show off advances in everything from touchscreen functionality and navigation devices to wearable technology and prosthetics.

Engineers in NxR are also developing a new robotic manipulation system that uses tactile sensors and high-speed cameras to catch and throw objects. The goal is to give robots the same manipulation skills as humans. Robots are much better than humans at many tasks, particularly those involving strength and precision, according to Kevin Lynch, professor and chair of mechanical engineering and a member of NxR.

“But when you look at the flexibility of the human, that's where the robot is going to need decades to catch up,” Lynch says. “Flexible manipulation is the next grand challenge of robotics.”