New haptic technology helps people with disabilities

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Scholars around the world, as well as in Chicago, are using touch technology to increase access for people with disabilities. (WLS)

Scholars around the world, as well as in Chicago, are using haptics - the science of touch - to develop touch technology that will increase access for people with disabilities.

Some of the new technology allows people to play music with just the touch of their fingertip or experience gravity in a video game using a special stylus. This technology could also let you feel fabric textures while shopping online.

Some of these products were on display at Northwestern University's recent Haptics Conference.

Joe Mullenbach, a PhD student in engineering at Northwestern, has created the TPAD sensory phone -- a phone you can feel.

"As you slide your finger across the screen, imagine you are running over little rough areas or areas where your finger kind of sticks a little bit or it feels like it's going over a little bump, that's the basic feeling we are able to create," Mullenbach said. "I want to reiterate that the screen itself is perfectly flat. We're not actually changing the shape, we're just giving you the perception that you've crossed over these things."

A team of students from Italy designed an app for the sensory phone that allows people who are visually impaired to take photos -- even selfies -- using their sense of touch.

"The app detects automatically the faces in the screen while you are taking the photo and provides you with both the audio and tactile feedback," said Domenico Buongiorno , who developed tactile blind photography application.

Sile O'Modhrain, a professor at the University of Michigan who is blind, uses the app.

"I do actually post pictures on Facebook, I know it seems crazy that I do, and so I just kind of point the camera and hope that Apple, or my phone manufacturer, will do the right thing and find the center of the image for me," O'Modhrain said. "So having some kind of texture to show where the center of the image is actually very helpful. You can sort of review what you've taken and sort of say, 'Oh the thing I was trying to focus on is actually to one side or not.' So that is very useful."

The TPAD phone is also running an application that that gives the sensation of a braille-like texture to letters. It would allow people with visual impairments to text.
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