Will we be able to “feel” things on the internet?

Gerald E. Loeb
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Suppose you are a manufacturer who wants to design and sell a new line of briefcases. You might start with a sample of a real leather briefcase that has the desired look and feel but is difficult to manufacture and too expensive to sell for a mass market. You know there are lots of companies that make faux leather from various synthetic materials but their products have a wide range of “feel.” You could go to one of the leading manufacturers of faux leather and ask them to send you a swatch book, but now you are locked into their relatively expensive material as a single-source supplier.

You know there are lots of small and inexpensive faux leather manufacturers around the world, but how do you find those that have materials that are likely to be suitable for your product?

You could do a Google search for “faux leather suppliers” (1,540,000 results) and add some descriptive words like “soft” or “buttery” (943,000 results), but what do those words really mean to you, your suppliers, or (most importantly) your potential customers?

What you need is the tactile equivalent of the Pantone® Color Matching System, pioneered by Lawrence Herbert in the ’60s. Before that, matching colors in printed, painted, projected or otherwise displayed materials was hit-or-miss. Pantone started with a set of standardized inks and color swatches and gradually incorporated technology to standardize light sources and computer monitors so that the colors that often distinguish the “look” of a brand turn out the same regardless of how or where they are produced.

Creating a similar standard for touch requires the same two capabilities that enabled the Pantone color system: sensors that measure the same attributes that humans perceive and a systematic way to describe all humanly appreciable combinations of those attributes. The Pantone system co-evolved with the technology of spectrophotometers and digital cameras plus the science of human color vision.

SynTouch® now offers a biomimetic tactile sensor (BioTac®) that replicates the mechanical properties and sensory modalities of the human fingertip plus an informatic representation of human tactile perception. Together, they enable Machine Touch®.

Fast-forward to the day when materials manufacturers and suppliers routinely have their sample swatches scanned by the BioTac to generate a multidimensional set of numbers that uniquely specifies the feel of their products. Larger manufacturers would own the instrument for making these measurements; smaller ones would send their samples for characterization at a test facility. The product designer sends a sample of a material with the desired feel to be characterized at the test facility. The database of all previously characterized materials is scanned for the closest matches and the contact information for the relevant suppliers is provided.

In this soon-to-be marketplace, the product designer can request the most promising physical samples, settle on details such as color and price, and get on with making and selling the product. If the supplier starts to deliver defective material, there will be an objective standard to measure the changes and negotiate a solution or find another supplier. Materials suppliers all over the world who struggle to get their goods noticed by designers or pay exorbitant markups to distributors will suddenly be enfranchised directly with their real customers.

This same system can solve the ecommerce problem that now limits the willingness of consumers to purchase personal items like clothing based on their visual appearance on a webpage. Consumers who want to replace a favorite garment or accessory could scan or look up the tactile coordinates of their property and find manufacturers of items that will feel the same as well as look the same.

The Google search for “leather briefcases” could include these tactile coordinates as well as the desired color so that truly matching items would display at the top of the list.

Eventually there will be tactors, the tactile equivalent of the PC color monitor, to create haptic sensations in the fingertips of a remote viewer. Researchers are already adding vibrators to touch screens to create texture illusions. When this technology arrives, it will need to be calibrated against human perception and driven by quantitative parameters of the percepts that need to be conveyed to the observer. We’ve got that.

The virtualization of the physical world, already available for light, sound, and motion, will finally include touch, that most human of senses.

This article is published in collaboration with Medium. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Gerald Loeb is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.

Image: A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. One of the largest ever cyber attacks is slowing global internet services after an organisation blocking “spam” content became a target, with some experts saying the disruption could get worse. To match INTERNET-ATTACK/ REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files.

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