Exciting New Haptics Device on the Horizon

If you’ve read my article in the March Access World or some of the previous entries here in Blind Confidential, you undoubtedly know that I find the idea of exploring the use of video and audio game technology in next generation user interfaces for people with vision impairments.  I’ve spent much more time exploring the audio possibilities than things tactile, primarily due to the high prices of refreshable tactile graphics and haptics hardware.  Recently, though, Blind News sent along a press release about a very exciting development in this area from, where else, the video game industry.

Three dimensional haptics devices have always been extremely expensive but Sand Diego based, Novint Technologies, Inc., will, in 2007, release a new version of its Falcon product that may change the world as we know it.  Other desktop haptics products currently deployed primarily for research or very high end computer based training applications, cost approximately $20,000 and more advanced versions can run into six figures.  The new Falcon, which will join the myriad game controllers in your local consumer electronics store, will carry an MSRP under $100.  When we discuss prices and economies of scale, the $35 billion video game market can make this possible.

The Falcon differentiates itself from the current generation of vibration or force feedback game controllers by bringing a profoundly greater level of sensory resolution than anything previously available to the gaming community.  This “toy” updates its controller (the Falcon supports switchable handles and such to meet different applications) 1000 times per second (1 kHz) and has .5 mm resolution in the x (right/left), y  (up/down) and z (forward/backward) axis.  The company’s web site provides a lot of information about the product so look there for additional reading.

What does this mean for a blind user?

Although I didn’t come across any mention of assistive technology in the press release or on the web site, the potential applications for such a device in the world of technology for people with vision impairments can have Earth shattering effects.

Think of everything you, as a blind person, touch and how much information you learn from the tactile sensation.  Now, for starters, lets take a primitive three dimensional object like a sphere and, build a virtual three dimensional solid out of it by making thousands of little squares with each side no more than .5mm.  This won’t create a perfect sphere as we aren’t curving our little squares but, rather, angling them against each other to create a wire frame sphere with .5 mm resolution in every direction.  Recent experiments show that the typical human can feel distinctions at even higher resolutions but, let’s remember folks; this is a $100 device.  Taking hold of the Falcon controller, the user can move their hand in virtual space and feel the shape of the sphere.  If we add some additional attributes to our ball, the user will be able to detect things like texture (the rough surface of a basketball comes to mind in light of the Gators tremendous victory last night), hardness (is this ball made of steel or is it a nerf?), if the sphere is moveable or many kinds of tactile attributes that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Now, let’s take this idea to a more practical application like observing art.  With any of today’s relatively low cost laser scanning devices, one can capture a wire frame image of virtually any sculpture (any solid object for that matter) and store it in a database of .5 mm squares.  Somebody who has far better integral calculus skills than I can figure out the surface area of Venus De Milo or Rodin’s Thinker in square half millimeters but I’d assume this would be a pretty large amount of data.  Fortunately, the fact that virtually all current computers come with DVD drives means that cheap media can be used to deliver all of these tiny squares.

I would envision a fast, lower resolution, navigation mode so a user doesn’t need to feel every .55 mm from David’s toe to his head and that art experts should be consulted to add the attribute information but, given a device like this Falcon, actually, given two of them so a user can feel their way around Atlas with both hands, and Microsoft’s Direct X API the 3D touch software shouldn’t be too hard to build.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to get my paws on one of these devices so I can start hacking for fun and building my own virtual art gallery out of little squares that I generate myself.  I’m also interested in hearing what audio game uber-hacker David Greenwood can do with a Falcon or two.


Everyone who cares about issues regarding inclusion and peace should do whatever their belief system suggests to remember Dr. Martin Luther King today, the anniversary of his assassination.  NPR reported this morning that since Coretta’s death contributions for the MLK memorial statue to go onto the mall in DC have increased.  You might also think about sending them some money too so we can start integrating our national collection of memorials.

Those of interested in inclusion, peace, civil rights and the arts can also celebrate as poet, leader and one of the most beautiful Americans, Maya Angelou turns 78 today.  With a name as pretty and a voice as strong as hers could she have been anything other than a poet?

Finally, my technology gripe du jour: Does anyone know of a “What the hell is this, why do I want it and how can I get rid of it” software product?  I’m using my relatively new Toshiba laptop to do most things these days.  Toshiba, like all other computer manufacturers, now bundle so much crap, some of which loads at start-up that it’s become difficult to determine whether or not I am being hit by some SpyWare or some other pre-installed program is just causing trouble.  We recently installed a new version of the McAfee Wireless Home Network Security program.  Now, its firewall is complaining about all sorts of junk trying to access the Internet.  What the hell is MetaMail and why do I want or not want it?  There are also loads of these pre-installed turds all over my hard disk that don’t seem to appear in the Add/Remove programs list in Control Panel.  

When I select AOL, a service for which I have no need, in Add/Remove, it tells me that I have to install it before I can uninstall it.  If it ain’t installed, why is it in my Start Menu?  Sure, I can go into the folder and delete it manually and edit my start menu entries but what other turds are stinking up my registry from all of this junk?

I’ve owned many a computer that had less hard disk space than is required to hold the programs this Toshiba comes with pre-packaged.  As much of this doo-doo cannot work with a screen reader, I will never use it but I’ve no way of getting rid of some of it.  Please help.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

One thought on “Exciting New Haptics Device on the Horizon”

  1. I think this is exciting news indeed, especially considering the price difference between a Novint Falcon and a comparable product, say the 3 DOF Phantom Desktop model from Sensable. The only concern I have about the device itself is the low resolution.

    I do have a broader concern about Haptics, and some of the claims people in the wider accessibility community are making about it. Thus far, most of the research work in the field of haptics has been in simulations, after all, haptics did stem from virtual reality. In comparison, little work has gone into more task based use of haptics, although some work has been done in this area. Therefore, we don’t know the psychological factors affecting things like using haptics to identify a letter or a word. Academic researchers, myself included, are working on investigating these and other issues, and so the answers will come over time. However, it may take a few years before we understand the implications of various haptic related design decisions, and therefore it might take a while before the full accessibility benefits of haptic technologies will be seen.

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