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U of O professor puts web right at users’ fingertips

UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA professor Abdulmotaleb El Saddik is pushing the boundaries of haptics, the study of tactile feedback technology, by transmitting the sense of touch over the Internet.

Haptics is used in a wide range of fields, from gaming to medicine to communication technology. El Saddiks’ technology uses a webcam and jacket wired with actuators and vibrators to feel a pat on the shoulder, a slap, or even a tickle from someone miles away.

“When you touch someone, what they feel is in fact a vibration,” said El Saddik.

The jacket transmits that vibration through the Internet using precision calculation. The goal is to create a hologram that users can not only see but also physically interact with. El Saddik said there are no limits to what this technology can achieve.

“This is the lab of the impossible,” El Saddik said. “Your phone uses haptics to tell you things through vibrations. It will be penetrating our lives in the next five years … embedded in computers and tablets.”

The team has already designed a program that allows users to manipulate 3D models of their homes and even a haptic biometric lock that can not only read the user’s fingerprint, but also his or her level of stress.

“If someone holds a gun to your head and tells you to open a lock, it will be able to tell,” El Saddik said. “Haptics is not the science fiction of a distant future; the technology is here now.”

Yu Gao is a U of O PhD student developing a game software that allows the designer to alter onscreen objects’ haptic properties, such as stiffness or friction, so that users can realistically manipulate objects in 3D.

“When I was a teenager there were no phones or tablets,” El Saddik said. “We saw computers as digital stuff that works with 0s and 1s. I was just curious to know why people were so excited about 0s and 1s, and now I see how much they can do.”

Another U of O researcher, Basim Hafidh used haptic technology to design a special sole that measures the pressure in different sections of the user’s foot and, using Bluetooth technology, transmits instructions to help correct the user’s way of walking.

“For example, if they put too much pressure on their heels, it will let them know, so that they correct this,” Hafidh said.

PhD student Mohammed Alhamid and master’s student Ayman Barnawi, both from the U of O,  have used haptics to help people stay motivated to get fit by designing a device that uses the technology to obtain information on the user and instantly display an image of their ideal body mass.

“When people will wake up in the morning and see themselves as they could be,” said El Saddik,  “they will stay motivated to work towards it.”

El Saddik has won numerous awards, including most recently a C.C. Gotlieb Medal, presented in May 2013 by the Canadian Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.