"Look, but don't touch." That's the drill at most museums — even when the objects on display aren't behind thick glass, laying so much as a finger on that 5,000-year-old Grecian urn is going to get you in some serious trouble.
But touch is an important facet of the way humans experience their surroundings, especially for young children and the visually challenged.
The Manchester Museum in Manchester, England, has developed a way to let visitors "touch" digital models of their exhibits, using a haptic device called a Probos — "haptic" means "having to do with touch" — to simulate the contours of a virtual object.
Here's how it works: Museumgoers sit in front of a device with a screen and a stylus connected via a mechanical arm. The screen displays a 3D model of an object such as a pot, bone or statue, and the stylus interacts with that model similar to the way a computer mouse interacts with a normal computer screen.
However, while a computer mouse moves on the flat surface of a desk to interact with the flat surface of a screen, the Probos stylus moves three-dimensionally in space to interact with a simulation of a three-dimensional object. [See also: "Tech Gets 'Touchy-Feely' With Haptic Engineering" ]
To "feel" the modeled object, you grasp the stylus and direct it "toward" the object. Once the stylus's digital counterpart makes contact with the model's surface, the stylus will stop moving, simulating the feeling of actually striking the modeled object with the stylus.
When you move the stylus, the motors in the stylus's mechanical arm will create a force feedback mimicking the ridges, cracks and contours of the modeled object. Pressing a different button will also let you rotate the object or zoom in or out.
Probos was originally developed by 3D-printing company GeoMagic, now 3D Systems, to give digital artists a more intuitive tool than a computer mouse.
"The haptic device allows you to touch data," said 3D Systems' Joshua St. John, explaining that the technology was first developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s by Thomas Massie, who went on to found GeoMagic.
"[Massie] was working in the robotics lab [at MIT] and basically thought 'If I can use a computer to tell a robot arm to move, couldn't I use a robot arm to manipulate data within the computer?' So the haptic device is basically a reverse robot," St. John said.
All told, “touching data” is definitely not the same as touching the original scanned object. But a computer screen and a stylus is a huge improvement from a glass case.
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