The sensation of feeling in video game controllers has been around since the introduction of the Rumble Pak for Nintendo 64 in 1997. Bundled with Star Fox 64, the Rumble Pak immersed players in the game by vibrating when they were firing a weapon or taking damage. While that innovation was cutting edge in the 20th century, the use of vibration for communication between man and machine — known as haptics — has its limits. Its sensors are hard to calibrate and tend to malfunction when exposed to heat or radiation. While vibration-based haptics may be fine for entertainment, you wouldn’t want to rely on them when handling nuclear materials.

High precision robotic arms have been in use in manufacturing for years. For example, pre-programmed robots grab and manipulate parts in automotive assembly lines. What they lack is the ability to distinguish between shapes and composition; is the material soft or hard? Japanese researchers announced development of a haptic-based avatar-robot. Its arm transmits sound, vision, movement, and a highly sensitive sense of touch in real time to a remote user. The researchers say it’s the world’s first high precision tactile force transmission technology that remembers human movements, edits them, and reproduces them. The core technology is based on high-precision motors integrated in the avatar arm and algorithms to drive them. That technology allows for high-precision control of force and position, critical for transmitting a sense of touch without using touch sensors.

Takahiro Nozaki and colleagues of the Faculty of Science and Technology and Haptics Research Center at Keio University developed the robot. Nozaki said the technology has applications in manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, and nursing. Nozaki and colleagues have launched a company named Motion Lib to commercialize their real-time haptics technology. Their main product is an integrated chip called the ABC-CORE IC force/tactile controller. Applications for the arm are being tested by a consortium of 30 companies. One such application is picking fruit. That unblemished apple you’re eating might never have been touched by human hands. And in the more distant future, this technology could find its way into smart prosthetics that could provide a bionic sense of touch for its wearer.