Haptics, a major challenge for the improvement of medical devices

February 2, 2021
Mobile, automotive, gaming… More and more sectors are integrating haptics, which introduces the sense of touch into human-machine communications. Despite this, haptic integration in medical devices is still rare. But this is sure to change since there is no doubt that haptics has potential applications in these devices.

Our sense of touch plays a large role in how we interact with the environment around us. It is one of the senses we place the most trust in, even more than sight or hearing. However, human interaction with medical devices today is solely based on vision and hearing. Aware of this, some companies, such as the Parisian start-up Actronika, which are specialized in haptics, offer manufacturers the opportunity to incorporate functions that allow the sense of touch to be placed at the heart of interactions with their devices.

What is Haptics?

Derived from the Greek word "haptikos", haptics is the science of touch. It can be categorized into two main areas: kinesthetic haptics and vibrotactile haptics.

Kinesthesia, or proprioception, is related to the way we perceive our limbs in space. To reproduce it, we usually use force feedback technology. Motors control the position of our limbs and, when interacting with a virtual object, guide the limbs to recreate the corresponding sensations.

The objective of vibrotactile haptics is to trick the brain with vibrations to recreate an illusion of touch. When we touch an object, vibrations are created and these allow our mind to understand the nature of the surface or object with which we interact. Vibrotactile haptics uses the vibrations that are created during these interactions so that our somatosensory system interprets them and leads to a coherent tactile illusion. Imagine browsing an online catalog and being able to feel, as you run your finger across the screen, the texture of the jeans you want to buy. It is in this second area of haptics that Actronika has specialized.

Haptics: What are the applications for medical devices?

Haptics can recreate tactile sensations to any interaction where it is missing, either because it is robotic or because it is digitally interfaced.

There is a strong challenge for the medical community on this subject with the emergence of touch screens, which are gradually replacing mechanical interfaces. The screens offer fast, simplified handling, and are easier to clean and disinfect. However, when we touch a button on a touch screen, we lose the sensation of having clicked on it. In the context of screens or graphical interfaces, the interest of haptics is then to provide sensory feedback to have the confirmation that we have interacted with the object and that this interaction has been taken into account. Actronika has already made strides in touchscreens with the automotive supplier Novares for the display screen of the Nova Car #2 by adding haptic feedback to reduce the visual distraction of the driver.

The FlexView Max touch screen developed by Actronika with Novares.

From an exploratory point of view, the field of possibilities to improve human-machine interactions with haptics is large. The technology can recreate different textures on imagery or, in the framework of remote-operation, to feel the body textures on which a remotely controlled robot acts.

The other interest of haptics is to allow information to pass intuitively by relying on the sense of touch to guide the user. Thus, it is possible to indicate to someone if his action is well correctly thanks to a vibratory notification. For example, the feedback can inform a laboratory technician when he has the correct pipetting angle.

In addition, haptics can also provide information about the surrounding environment through a sense other than visual and auditory stimuli. A patient's condition in the operating room could be signaled by a heartbeat, or visually impaired people could be given cues about their environment by giving them feedback of the obstacles around them.

By going even further, it is possible to enrich virtual environments with haptics. This would be extremely valuable for the training of teams in virtual reality environments, which would be expensive or risky to perform in real life. For example, Actronika has worked with Light & Shadows, a company specializing in the development of virtual and augmented reality projects, to develop a gun for virtual training in industrial painting. The goal was to improve the precision of the user's gesture by giving him feedback on the force with which he pressed the paint gun.

But the role of haptics does not stop there. Its use is also envisioned for patient treatment. Using the properties of bone conduction to compensate for hearing impairment, helping with pain management or rehabilitation, restoring a certain sense of touch to amputees thanks to brain plasticity, restoring sensory memory as part of treatments for Alzheimer's disease...

Haptics could be the solution to many ailments.


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