At CES 2017, I got my mind blown by a giant mystery box from a company called AxonVR that was able to generate astonishingly convincing tactile sensations of things like tiny palm-sized animals running around on my palm in VR. An update in late 2017 traded the giant mystery box (and the ability to reproduce heat and cold) for a wearable glove with high resolution microfluidic haptics embedded inside of it. By itself, the HaptX system is constrained to virtual reality, but when combined with a pair of Universal Robotics UR10 arms, Shadow dexterous robotic hands, and SynTouch tactile sensors, you end up with a system that can reproduce physical reality instead.
The demo at CES is pretty much the same thing that you may have seen video of Jeff Bezos trying at Amazon’s re:MARS conference. The heart of the system are the haptic gloves, which are equipped with spatial position and orientation sensors as well as finger location sensors. The movements that you make with your hands and fingers are mapped to the Shadow hands, while the UR10 arms try to match the relative position of the hands in space to your own. Going the other way, there’s a more or less 1-to-1 mapping between what the robot hands feel, and the forces that are transmitted into the fingers of the gloves.
It’s not a perfect system quite yet—sensors get occluded or otherwise out of whack on occasion, and you have to use a foot pedal as a sort of pause button on the robots while you reposition your limbs in a way that’s easier for the system to interpret. And the feel of the force transmission takes some getting used to. I want to say that it could be more finely calibrated, but much of that feeling is likely on my end, since we’re told that the system gets much easier to control with practice.
Evan uses the telerobotic hands to operate a mockup of a control panel used to shut down a nuclear reactor. He had to turn a valve, flip some switches, twist a knob, and then push a button. Meltdown averted!Photo: Andrew Mitrak/HaptX
Even as a brand new user, it was surprising how capable my remote controlled hands were. I had no trouble grabbing plastic cups and transferring a ball between them, although I had to take care not to accidentally crush the cups (which would trap the ball inside). At first, it was easy to consider the force feedback as more of a gimmick, but once I started to relax and pay attention to it, it provided useful information that made me more effective at the task I was working on.
After playing around with things a bit more (and perhaps proving myself not to be totally incompetent), I was given the second most challenging scenario—a simple mockup of a control panel used to shut down a nuclear reactor. I had to turn a valve, flip some switches, twist a knob, and then push a button, all of which required a variety of different grasps, motions, and forces. It was a bit fiddly, but I got it all, and what I found most impressive was that I was able to manipulate things even when I couldn’t see them—in this case, because one of the arms was blocking my view. I’m not sure that would have been possible without the integrated haptic system.
The three companies involved in the project (Shadow Robot Company, HaptX, and Tangible Research) have formed the Converge Robotics Group to commercialize the system.Image: Converge Robotics Group
The news from CES is that the three companies involved in this project (Shadow Robot Company, HaptX, and Tangible Research) have formed a sort of consortium-thing called Converge Robotics Group. Basically, the idea is to create a framework under which the tactile telerobot can be further developed and sold, because otherwise, it’s not at all clear who you’d even throw money at if you wanted to buy one.
Speaking of buying one, this system is “now available for purchase by early access customers.” As for what it might cost, well… It’ll be a lot. There isn’t a specific number attached to the system yet, but with two UR10 arms and pair of Shadow hands, we’re looking at low six figures just in that portion of the hardware. Add in the HaptX gloves and whatever margin you need to keep your engineers fed, and it’s safe to say that this isn’t going to end up in your living room in the near future, no matter how cool that would be.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.