You might think that a breast exam is one thing that we wouldn’t need–or want–any robotic help with, but that’s just what a new Japanese robot from researchers at Gifu University could do. And, no these robots wouldn’t be touching actual bodies, they’d only be used on virtual breasts to help medical students identify virtual cancerous lumps. By using “haptic technology,” the operator could slip the finger pieces of the robot on, squeeze a section of open air, and feel as though they are touching an actual soft mass, potentially one with telltale harder masses inside of it.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about haptics. The word haptics comes from the Greek “haptikos” meaning related to touch, or tactile. Haptic technology provides sensory feedback–usually in the form of vibration–from the piece of technology to the body part you are touching it with. The little buzz you feel as you type each key on your smartphone is considered haptics. The technology behind the Nintendo 64’s Rumble Pak is also considered haptic technology, so you experienced it anytime you’ve been shot with a silenced PP7 or double Moonraker Lasers provided your buddy had the right cheats engaged.
The aforementioned forms of haptics are easy enough to pull off, but truly simulating the sense of touch–the ability to discern shapes and their consistency–is tricky. Traditionally, haptic technology has tried to mimic the sensation of touch by constraining the movement of fingers that are coming in contact with the virtual object in question. Your fingers would be constrained only a little when touching soft virtual objects and a lot more when touching hard virtual objects. The Japanese researchers responsible for this new technology assert that there is more to touching a soft object than just resistance; that the actual deformation of your skin around a soft object’s surface creates the true sensation of a soft touch. This is the sensation they wanted to recreate–and may have just done it.
On the finger tips of the apparatus is a material called hyper-gel, which has similar properties to human skin. The hyper-gel is suspended between two rollers. These rollers can spin to tighten the strip of hyper-gel, creating the sensation of something hard, or loosen to create the sensation of something soft. The technology was presented last Monday at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Hong Kong.
The researchers contend that this technology is a serious improvement on the conventional way that students practice finding possibly cancerous breast lumps. Traditionally, many silicone breasts are needed, each with a lump arranged in a unique position within it, for practice to be a challenge of student’s abilities. The haptic technology, however, could place virtual lumps of various sizes in various locations within a virtual breast, more accurately simulating a real-life breast exam.
To see how well the new technology worked, the researchers had volunteers feel a silicone breast with their bare hands, feel a virtual breast with the traditional haptics system, and feel one with their technology. The volunteers told them that the sensation afforded by their new technology felt the most like touching an actual breast, and that it was significantly more realistic than the traditional haptics system. The hope is that the versatility of this technology could minimize practice examinations currently done on actual people or animals, eliminating complications associated with patient well-being and animal ethics.
HT: IEEE Spectrum
IMAGES: Gifu University