Returning sensory information
A person with nerve damage in their hand, for instance, may not be able to feel if the glass they’re holding is about to slip from their grasp. But Ghost are a company hoping to give back some of that information. They have pressure sensors in a glove which sends signals to vibration motors further up the wearer’s arm or elsewhere on the body, relaying information about what’s going on in their damaged hand. And that’s just the beginning of their work. Adam Murphy spoke to Laura Bücheler, co-founder of Ghost...
Laura - We use any type of complex information, translate them into our haptic language - haptic just means that you can feel it, so instead of listening to something or seeing something we make you feel something, that in turn will activate a few vibration motors placed in a haptic vest that will be vibrating on your back and your brain will learn how to interpret those signals and learn to identify them as the information coming in. So, for example with a prosthesis, people can feel pressure or temperature that is coming into the prosthesis and they will be able to interpret those.
Adam - What exactly have you created with GHOST, and what concrete prototypes do you have?
Laura - We, at the moment, have two prototypes that we showcase. One showing the principle of a glove connecting pressure sensors through vibration motors located on your lower arm, and the other one is the haptic vest that we're actually going to make as a serial product with vibration motors in it to just show how information could be translated into different patterns.
Adam - Say I have a prosthesis and I have this glove on, how is it going to help me? What's it going to do to make my life better I suppose?
Laura - Usually wearing a prosthesis, it's a one-way street. You either have one that just looks like a hand or you have one that you can move, but it does not give you any information, any feedback whether the bottle that you're holding will slip out of your prosthesis or whether you're crushing it.
Adam - What stage are you at with this technology?
Laura - We have a working prototype that shows the principle of it. We are currently working on making that into a smart textile, so no cables - all included in the textile. And working on the haptic language and try to also work on an algorithm that correctly translates the information that comes in into our haptic language.
Adam - What challenges have you found in trying to create this?
Laura - It's actually quite different from what you would expect to what you can feel, you know. How far do you have to place the vibration motors apart from each other, how strong they can vibrate, what can actually be perceived by the human body. And we are mainly also focusing on how to make it most intuitive, to shorten the time that your brain actually has to learn how to interpret the signals and actually that's quite a difficult task.
Adam - How do you go about doing that actually; interpreting buzz means you're holding something?
Laura - We try different vibration patterns and see how well people can pick it up and how fast it takes them to pick it up. Let's say we tried A, B and C and then we realised oh, people learnt A the fastest so let's try to add that into our language and leave B and C to something - it's more complex words so to say.
Adam - And what are you hoping to do in the future? Where are you hoping to take GHOST?
Laura - So we're hoping to take GHOST also to different application fields. So we're currently looking into different ways where we could apply the technology because it's not limited to prosthetics. So, for example, it's not a big jump to think that it's applied from a prosthesis to a robotic arm for example. We could make people who remotely control a robot, feel whatever that robot is doing, or we could even go as far as creating new sensors like, for example, making people feel radiation.
Adam - Oh, so if radiation is coming in even, like could that be nuclear or just solar radiation?
Laura - Whatever would be necessary, it could be both, depending on the sensors that we used to pick it up.
Adam - Could you do that for any kind of sensor? Could you create buzzers for infrared or for UV?
Laura - Exactly!