As a massage therapist, your sense of touch is invaluable: Touch allows one to feel muscle tightness, congested lymph, inflamed fascia and more. Now, the human sense of touch has caught the interest of researchers, who are busy creating tools and processes that replicate the sense of touch in order to improve human-machine interfaces.

This research isn’t intended to create an army of robots who squirt oil, perform petrissage and intone “now roll over” in a Siri-like voice—but human-machine touch interactions do have many potential uses that could affect our experience of life.

Mechanical engineering professor Katherine Kuchenbecker, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, presented a TED Talk recently on this topic, called “Haptography: Digitizing our sense of touch.”

Her research focuses on capturing how objects feel and recreating that experience. The way it works is, as a person moves her body through the world, an engineer can measure that motion and then present to the user sensations that match up with what she might feel in the real world.

More to the point: “I can fool you into thinking that you’re touching something even though there’s nothing there,” Kuchenbecker says.

In her research, she has a person use a handheld tool that has sensors inside it to measure force, motion and vibration—while the person is dragging the tool across a piece of canvas, for example.

That data is programmed into a tablet computer, so when a person uses a stylus on the tablet, she has the illusion she is touching the real surface, just like if she dragged the stylus back and forth on that real piece of canvas.

Another type of research Kuchenbecker’s involved in measures the kinesthetic sense, which helps people learn how to move their bodies in order to master specific movements, such as those involved in a sport.

Some of the applications experts say Kuchenbecker’s work can apply to include online shopping (so you can see what that polyester dress really feels like); computer gaming; robot-assisted surgery; stroke rehabilitation; sports and exercise; museum exhibits (go ahead—”touch” Marie Antoinette’s robe); medical education; and personal robots.

Wait … personal robots?

If someone named Siri opens a massage practice in your town, be sure to let me know.

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