Haptics

Those who know my work have been regularly treated to moans about how visually and auditorially dominated our educational system is, how much the kinesthetic has fallen by the wayside in our electronic age, where the kids sit slumped over their consoles, frantically pushing buttons and riding joysticks in virtual worlds, which their body in this one moves from slacker to hacker to simply hacked.

We need, I often say, a physical education for the 21st century. And the computers get the blame for so much workplace trauma (my friend Erik Dalton has an X-ray of a person slouched at a desk workstation with the caption ‘Severe spinal damage at 0 mph!’) and youth degradation. Well, maybe the computers are going to help us out of this problem to which they have contributed.

Those in the know are aware that the computerized games are getting more interactive, with remote-like devices acting like golf clubs and tennis rackets, so that with one of these in your hand, you can be interacting with a computer screen but directing a virtual ball with the whole body in increasingly naturalistic sportive movement. In other words, computers are learning about us as fast as we learn about them.

Well, get ready for the next stage – haptics. Drawn from the Greek word meaning ‘able to be grasped’ – a wonderful root meaning ‘handy’ that will take us easily to habit, rehabilitation, ability, and homo habilis – it refers to our advanced sense of touch and kinesthesia, especially in the skin of the hand.
Computer haptic devices simulate the feel of an object – an edge could be felt as an edge, a virtual sphere would be felt as a sphere, ‘encountered’ by your finger (you have to wear a special glove that’s hooked in) every time you come to its wall. But it’s better than that – they are already able to simulate a rough rubbery sphere or a smooth ivory one, so it could feel like a basketball or a billiard ball.

For one engineer working on this, “The holy grail is to do fur” – calling to mind the ‘feelies’ in Aldous Huxley’s strangely prescient Brave New World, where viewers grasp knobs to add the feel of every hair on the bear rug to the lovemaking scene in the movie. Besides the obvious applications to pornography (always the first industry to happily and gainfully employ new technology), we can imagine more prosaic applications to educating the ‘feel’ of surgery or other skilled professions, or even more prosaic, giving your finger the ‘feel’ pushing a button on the flat virtual screens of such things as my iPhone.

But it is in our own field that I see great possibilities. I have written against allowing on-line learning to take over continuing education in our hands-on profession. It is a great idea for shut-ins or the geographically isolated, but filling in a multiple guess test after reading an article or a book is an awful substitute for actually getting your hands into tissue and feeling what happens when you apply this or that intervention under supervision.

But with this technology, we could both teach and assess hands on skills without being in the same room, as a doctor in India could perform gall bladder surgery on a child in Cleveland via computer-driven laproscopic devices.  This has a truly Brave New World feel, and will be rejected by some as too cold and remote, but it certainly could be possible that the technology could become refined enough to tell when someone was pushing too hard, entering too quickly, or whether they could recognize different states of myofasciae or joint tissues under their fingers.

For me this is a bright-eyed possibility: maybe I can stay home, avoid all airplanes, and still teach students worldwide.

What a world! What imagination we have!  How little we use in our headlong race to destruction!

I started my journey at:
http://www.isfh.org/haptics.html

(Thanks, Eric)

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