Charting the Terrain of Touch

At MIT’s Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics, researchers are probing the inner workings of our hands

MIT's campus
MIT's campus Wikimedia Commons

At his laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientist Mandayam Srinivasan's approach to his research reflects his training in engineering. He holds up his right hand, waggles his fingers, forms a fist. "This," he says, "is a system — how does this system work?"

To answer that question, he created the Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics — "haptics" is the Greek-derived word for studies of the property of touch, including particularly the hand. Researchers here use potent new ultrasound devices to peer into their own hands' skin, attempting to examine buried touch sensors. They build machines to measure the tiniest sensations hands can discern. And these scientists are investigating the physical responses that underlie the functioning of our fingers and skin. Exploiting their data, they have helped create devices that let you "feel" objects that exist only digitally.

The possible applications of this work are as eclectic as the research being carried on here. From the Touch Lab we may see breakthroughs as varied as devices to help train surgeons in laparoscopic procedures and an ultrasound imaging system designed to detect melanoma at very early stages.

Ultimately, scientists at the Touch Lab are penetrating the mysteries of a very complex interrelationship. After all, as Srinivasan explains, the hand actually "ends at the brain." It is this connection — between the human hand and the brain controlling it — that is being elucidated by Srinivasan and his colleagues.

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