The haptic touch

Two new patented inventions by Hakan Gurocak can help advance the digital experience.

One difference between hands-on experiences and digital experiences is the sense of touch. When you shop at a retail store, for example, you can handle an item before you buy it. But when you shop online, you only see a picture of it.

Technology that conveys a sense of touch—called haptics—currently is used in the automotive industry, in medical training, in videogames and even on your smartphone’s keypad. But it has not spread to everyday use.

Hakan Gurocak, director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University Vancouver, is out to change that.

Gurocak recently received his first two U.S. patents, both designed to overcome some longstanding technical challenges and make haptics technology more practical. The patents are a step toward haptic interfaces—possibly something wearable, like a type of glove—that will expand applications of the technology.

Haptics has great potential to improve our quality of life. For instance, while robotic surgery is already in use, it is limited by the lack of what’s called “force feedback” to the surgeon. Haptic technology can provide that feedback, ultimately enabling the surgeon to “feel” inside the patient’s body as he interacts with tissue while operating the surgical robot.

The future of haptic technology depends on continuing training of new inventors with new ideas, and that is happening at WSU Vancouver. Gurocak’s former graduate students are listed as co-inventors on the patents. He is delighted about the beneficial “side effect” of his patents—“not only developing the technology but in the process developing a highly skilled technology workforce who got to work on these things and contributed,” Gurocak said. “Regardless of the patents, that’s what universities do.”