Thursday, January 26, 2006

Soft robots and haptics

"Chance favors the prepared mind."
- Louis Pasteur

Even though I feel like my grasp of advanced math is not as solid as it should be, I don't think it's beyond me to understand it, if I spent enough time on it (and maybe asked someone if I got stuck). But I don't feel like this is innate. Anyone should be able to understand advanced concepts if it were explained correctly. Geniuses might get it faster than others, but everyone should have the mental capacity to grasp abstract concepts eventually.

However, when it comes to creativity, innovation...ahh...that's something that's practiced. But even if you do work on it, sometimes you might not have gotten something that someone else thought of. And in that capacity, I feel that Louis Pasteur's quote above signifies to me the reason why.

I had always been looking for some type of gel substance that received and gave some type of signal as an input device, but usually to no avail. It was with this sitting in the back of my mind where, "Luck favors the prepared."

I was talking to a coworker next door, and he was working on robotics and autonomy. He was excited about a prototype for a body that he had constructed. A common problem for robotics is mobility: wheels can't go everywhere. So what he and his cohorts developed was the concept of a soft robot...a robot with a soft, amorphous body. He showed me a disk with membrane on one side, and plastic on the other. Trapped inside the disk was a dark colored liquid. When you feel the liquid from the side of the membrane, it doesn't feel special...just like liquid under a membrane. But when you put a magnet on the plastic side, it hardened the dark colored liquid, which you could now feel on the side of the membrane. Basically, the idea was to have a sac with this dark liquid as a body that you can control through magnets.

I was playing around with it while talking to him. It was pretty neat. When moving the magnet, you can feel a gel-like hardness underneath the membrane. I was thinking to myself, "This is pretty cool. You can use it to create robots that do massages with this." Immediate after--though I did not express it--I knew that the porn industry would have a field day with such a technology.

And then as I usually do, I reverse whatever I was doing, just to be playful. I stuck the magnet on the plastic side, and started pushing the hardness around through the membrane. As a result, the magnet on the other side was moving around also. I looked at my coworker and said, "You know, you can use this as an input device...I'm sure there are magnetic sensors, right? So you can push the hardness in the membrane around, detect it, and send it electronically somewhere else. You guys probably thought of it already, right?" He was kinda surprised and said, "No, we hadn't thought of that at all." I saw a flicker of an idea in his head, but he didn't divulge what it was. He seemed please with himself.

A week or two later, he came up to me and said, "hey short-timer!" And then he told me that his cohorts were really excited about the idea. Basically, for robotic-assisted surgery, it can be an input device that provides haptics (force-feedback). So, in the future, if you see any soft-membrane input devices for robotic-assisted surgery, it was cuz of me playing around with a membrane. Haha, my little claim to fame.

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