Final Report Summary - PATCH (Computational Theory of Haptic Perception)
Touch is our most direct access to the world around us. The haptic function, or touch, is what lets us walk and manipulate objects swiftly. It is also what keeps us safe. The ERC PATCH project developed a computational theory of haptic perception that is grounded in the physics of mechanical interactions. It aims at explaining how we transform the mechanics of touch into the conscious sensations of the shape and of the substance of which the objects we manipulate, or walk on, are made. Before the research undertaken in the PATCH project, to explain how we feel the properties of objects, such as the substance they are made of or their texture, the emphasis was on the analysis of the responsive properties of the various mechanoreptors that are embedded in our skin and other tissue. What the research conclusively demonstrated is that haptic perception is essentially the result of a computational process taking place in the brain drawing its input from the combined properties of the skin sensors, the biomechanics of the skin and of the interaction of the skin with the environment. Several brain regions and nuclei have been identified as the putative seat of where these computations take places that go far beyond the traditional view that perception arises from a classification process taking place in the primary somatosensory areas. The development of this project has resulted in two industrial outcomes in the form of a startup company and of a proof of concept prototype developed under the aegis of an attendent ERC Proof-of-Concept program. It also resulted in a direct societal outcomes in the are of accessibility through the development of a tactile communication device for use by the Deafblind.