Jason LombergCheck those smirks. This doesn’t concern a certain less-than-reputable industry (banking $100 billion+ annually) or Japan’s general proclivity for weirdness. Actually, the ability to simulate the tactile sensation of soft breast tissue could have important medical applications.

And for students learning the proper way to palpate breasts for lumps, this could be a literal lifesaver.

Photo: Gifu UniversityWe’ve seen big advances in haptics over the last decade or so, but as IEEE points out, simulating soft tactile sensations remains extraordinarily difficult. Last week at SID, Tianma NLT demonstrated an LCD prototype incorporating their proprietary tactile touch technology — electrical vibrations simulate a rough texture onscreen — but even taking into account the different contexts (and how cool it actually was), it was a far cry from soft human flesh.

Researchers at Gifu University in Japan took a more hands-on approach — so to speak — with their “multi-fingered haptic interface robot”, which looks like a cross between a medical instrument and the overly complicated motion-sense device Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report.

According to IEEE, conventional haptic devices convey softness by letting your finger move into the object before pulling it back like a rubber band. But this merely transmits force, not the sensation of soft touch. When the skin on our fingertips deforms, this generates “cutaneous signals”, which is what creates the actual sensation, and this is what the Japanese researchers strove to recreate.

Their robot uses hypergel – a thin flexible material similar to human flesh – connected to the fingertips, and when the devices “makes contact” with soft tissue, the gel “is stretched by two tiny rollers with a gap between them, so that a strip of gel is suspended in the air.”

Photo: Gifu University

Pulling the gel strip taut — increasing the tension — simulates a harder material, while loosening it creates a softer sensation.

The alternative — silicone models — is intrinsically limited, but the multi-fingered haptic interface robot allows students to check for lumps in different spots.

The possibilities are endless, but the most obvious application could prove most valuable – improving early detection of breast cancer.