18 March 2009—This week, researchers from Philips Electronics plan to describe a jacket they have lined with vibration motors to study the effects of touch on a movie viewer’s emotional response to what the characters are experiencing.
”People don’t realize how sensitive we are to touch, although it is the first sense that fetuses develop in the womb,” says Paul Lemmens, a Philips senior scientist who will be presenting research done using the jacket at the IEEE-sponsored 2009 World Haptics Conference 2009, in Salt Lake City.
The jacket contains 64 independently controlled actuators distributed across the arms and torso. The actuators are arrayed in 16 groups of four and linked along a serial bus; each group shares a microprocessor. The actuators draw so little current that the jacket could operate for an hour on its two AA batteries even if the system was continuously driving 20 of the motors simultaneously.
So what can the jacket make you feel? Can it cause a viewer to feel a blow to the ribs as he watches Bruce Lee take on a dozen thugs? No, says Lemmens. Although the garment can simulate outside forces, translating kicks and punches is not what the actuators are meant to do. The aim, he says, is investigating emotional immersion.
”We want people to feel Bruce Lee’s anxiety about whether he will get out alive,” says the Philips researcher. The jacket, responding to signals encoded in the DVD or to a program designed to control the jacket on the fly, can do a host of things, such as ”causing a shiver to go up the viewer’s spine and creating the feeling of tension in the limbs.” During the fight scene, says Lemmens, the jacket will even create a pulsing on the wearer’s chest to simulate the kung fu master’s elevated heartbeat.
The actuators are capable of cycling on and off 100 times per second—more than enough to outpace the refresh rate of a computer screen or a TV set. But how are the researchers able to stimulate the entire upper body using only 64 actuators? Lemmens explains that the skin’s neural wiring and the way the brain perceives touch make that number sufficient. Though the jacket has only eight actuators along the length of each sleeve (four in front and four in back) spaced about 15 centimeters apart, those actuators can create the sensation that the arm is being tapped in several spots between the motors (a phenomenon called the cutaneous rabbit illusion).
Asked if he and his colleagues have any plans to make a matching set of pants, Lemmens says no, but that the possible applications of this technology are limitless and that the emotion-inducing actuators could go anywhere.
This is not Philips’s first foray into heightening sensation. In October 2008, amBX, in Surrey, England, spun off from Philips to make gaming peripherals, including lighting-effects devices and wind machines that together can simulate the sensation of a gentle breeze or a bomb blast.