The thing (well, one of the things) we love about robots is that they can be designed to do things that humans can't. It's not just that they can do human-y things better—it's that they can take a piece of our selves (like fingers) and improve on them to enable totally new capabilities. Osaka University's Omni-Finger is just such a robot, giving artificial fingers an entirely new dimension.
While the prototype in this vid just has one Omni-Finger, the final concept will include three of them (as in the illustration below). This will enable robots to arbitrarily alter the orientation of objects that they've grasped without having to set the object down, manipulate it, and re-grasp it, making grasping tasks as a whole easier and much more efficient. The only problem remaining is to figure out how to keep the fingers in contact with an irregular object as the fingers move it around, but the researchers are working on some creative ideas involving surrounding the fingers with deformable sacks filled with some sort of viscous fluid.
Just imagine for a second what's going to happen a short time in the future when robots start playing baseball with hands like these. Talk about a curveball! Maybe what'll happen is that in order to get a gig as a pitcher, humans will need to have their real fingers surgically replaced with Omni-Fingers in order to have any hope of keeping up with the robots.
Robotic Finger Mechanism Equipped Omnidirectional Driving Roller with Two Active Rotational Axes, by Kenjiro Tadakuma, Riichiro Tadakuma, Mitsuru Higashimori, and Makoto Kaneko from Osaka University in Japan was presented last week at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in St. Paul, Minn.
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.