One major reason hands-on experiences are so different from digital experiences is the sense of touch. When you go shopping at a retail store, for example, you can handle an item before you buy it. When you shop online, you can only see it.
That’s bound to change, because haptic technology—technology that conveys a sense of touch—is already here. You can find it in the automotive industry, in dental training, in videogames and even on your smartphone’s keypad. But it has not spread to everyday desktop computer use.
Haptic technology relies on actuators—a generic term describing motors, electronic brakes and pneumatic systems. Actuators can create a vibration or force that generates the touch sensation.
“One of the biggest challenges in building futuristic interfaces is current actuator technology,” said Hakan Gurocak, professor and director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University Vancouver.
Gurocak’s research addresses that challenge. This summer, he received his first two U.S. patents—one to help develop electronically controlled brakes, and the other for an improved internal design that will allow for a much smaller but more powerful actuator. These two patents are a big step toward haptic interfaces—possibly something wearable, like a type of glove—that will be more usable and will enable many more applications for the technology.
“It’s very exciting to me personally, and it was quite a learning process to go from ‘I have an idea, I wonder if it would work,’ and ending up with a U.S. patent,” Gurocak said.
The Stickiness Factor
The first patent, received July 28, 2015, is titled “Magnetorheological devices and associated methods of control.” These devices, called MR devices, use a special fluid that is employed in the development of electronically controllable brakes. The fluid, usually slippery, becomes sticky in the presence of a magnetic field, and the stickiness creates the resistance that is essential in building new haptic interfaces for the sense of touch.
Gurocak’s contribution was to solve a problem with the stickiness factor. MR devices tend to keep the stickiness in memory and not revert immediately to the slippery state when turned off. (Imagine that you’d still feel the touch sensation even after you had released the virtual object. That would be weird.)
“The solution I came up with is simple but very effective,” Gurocak said. “It will be applicable to any MR device that uses this fluid.”
The second patent, received Aug. 18, 2015, ”Linear MR-brake as a high force and low off-state friction actuator,” is an improved internal design. “This enables a different kind of interaction with the device and potentially different types of interfaces that can be built,” Gurocak said. “It enables us to make the actuator much smaller but more powerful.”
Gurocak worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization in Pullman to disclose the invention and file the patent application. It is a long process—Gurocak’s first patent took three years from filing the initial disclosure to receiving the patent. The Office of Commercialization will pursue additional commercialization activities, including licensing the patent to an industry partner or a start-up company. Although all intellectual property developed by faculty is owned by the university, WSU creates incentives for inventors by sharing revenues generated through the commercialization of their intellectual property.
Gurocak’s former graduate students are listed as co-inventors on the patents. Doruk Senkal and Berk Gonenc were involved in the first patent, and Mustafa Alkan in the second. Senkal and Gonenc went on for Ph.Ds., and Alkan returned to his native Turkey and started a company there.
Gurocak is delighted about the beneficial “side effect” of his patents—“not only developing the technology but in the process developing a highly skilled technology workforce who got to work on these things and contribute,” he said. “Regardless of the patents, that’s what universities do.”