updated 3/4/2008 5:38:04 PM ET 2008-03-04T22:38:04

A controller developed at Carnegie Mellon University allows computer users to manipulate three-dimensional images and explore virtual environments not only through sight and sound, but by using their sense of touch.

The device, expected to be used mainly for research, training and industrial purposes, comes close to the sensitivity of the human hand.

Using magnetic fields, the so-called haptic device replicates the response a hand might have to textures and gravitational forces, said Ralph L. Hollis, a Carnegie Mellon professor who developed the controller. Haptic refers to devices that convey the sense of touch.

"We believe this device provides the most realistic sense of touch of any haptic interface in the world today," he said.

The controller — like a joystick topped with a block that can be grasped — has just one moving part and rests in a bowl-like structure connected to a computer. Two of the controllers can be used simultaneously to pick up and move virtual objects on a monitor.

In a demonstration Tuesday, visitors to Hollis' lab were invited to move an image of a pin across a plate of various textures, causing the controller to bump along ripples, vibrate across fine striations and glide across smooth areas.

On one computer, users could "feel" the contours of a virtual rabbit.

Hollis said his researchers had built 10 of the devices, six of which were to be sent to other universities across the country and in Canada, and that a new company, Butterfly Haptics, would begin marketing the device in June or July.

The controller, which Hollis said will cost "much less" than $50,000, could enable a would-be surgeon to operate on a virtual human organ and sense the texture of tissue or give a designer the feeling of fitting a part into a virtual jet engine.

The interface might also convey the feeling of wind under the wings of unmanned military planes, Hollis said.

Hollis and his research team built an initial version of the device in 1997, but refined it — and lowered its cost — in recent years with the help of a National Science Foundation grant.

"We have gone from the prototype to a much more advanced system that other researchers can use," he said in a statement.

Haptic devices are not new, and such technology is fast becoming more sophisticated, Hollis noted. Vibrating cell phones and some automotive accessories and video games already convey physical sensations to users.

But the system developed at Carnegie Mellon differs from those technologies because it relies on a part that floats in a magnetic field rather than on mechanical links and cables, according to Hollis.

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