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Virtual fabric for new online shopping experience
Buying clothes on the internet can save time and money, but you can never be entirely sure of what the fabric feels like until the garment arrives at your home. An ambitious European research project will give shoppers a virtual touch before they buy.
Researchers working in the HAPTEX project have pioneered the development of 'virtual fabric' that allows people to manipulate and feel the physical properties of a textile through a computer interface and a glove embedded with sensors and actuators.
Used commercially, the technology would not only revolutionise the way people buy products online – be it clothes or furniture – but it could also help to make games and virtual reality applications far more realistic.
The system relies on a variety of advanced technologies, not least the evolving field of haptics, taken from the Greek word haptikos, which means 'able to touch'.
To recreate virtually how a fabric feels, the researchers first feed detailed measurements of its texture, strain, stress and deformation properties into a computer. A virtual piece of the fabric can then be visualised on the screen.
Users can then manipulate it by putting on an exoskeleton glove with a powered mechanical control system on the back and an array of moving pins under each finger.
Guided by the haptic information about the fabric’s properties, the control system exerts a force on the wearer’s fingers to simulate manipulating the fabric. Users can stretch it, crumple it and pull it at will, and see their actions reproduced by a virtual hand on the computer screen.
At the same time, the pins move up and down under each finger to convey a tactile sense of the material’s texture.
Fusion of haptic and tactile technologies
The researchers say the project is the first attempt anywhere in the world to use haptic and tactile interfaces in a single device. In addition, most previous haptic interfaces relied on moving a stylus over the surface – an approach that, by comparison, limits the realism.
A prototype developed during the course of the HAPTEX project used 1cm² arrays of 24 pins each that are able to move 40 times a second. These stimulate the touch receptors in the wearer’s fingertips. The receptors are spaced between 0.5mm to 1mm apart.
The researchers say the system recreates the feel of a fabric with an impressive degree of realism to the point where it is possible to differentiate textiles by their texture alone. Adding more pins to the fingertip arrays and getting them to move faster would further improve the experience.
Though the device developed in the HAPTEX project is still a long way from being ready for commercial use, the researchers’ work has nonetheless opened the door to a future in which online shopping and gaming is a much more immersive and realistic experience.
They even envision haptic-tactile technologies creating whole new markets with applications that have not even been thought of today, providing European businesses with the tools to become more competitive.
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