04-29-2011                                                                                                                            The field of three-dimensional laser scanning and my field, known as “haptics,” are both fairly new on the scene. I was originally an artist—a sculptor-engraver, primarily in glass—until I was struck by a car while walking in 1986 and injured extensively. My career to that point had been a successful one, including purchase of my work by such well-regarded collections as the Corning Museum of Glass in New York and the Pilkington Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Physically unable to continue in my chosen field conventionally, I attempted to use computers for the artistic act of forming shapes and creating three-dimensional effects to engage the senses. One sense that could not be engaged via computer-screen programs was touch, and that omission spoiled the enjoyment of 3D digital sculpture for me. It also got me interested and involved in the field of haptics. That interest led me on a winding path to a research fellowship at Birmingham City University, where I now work.

Human haptics is the study of the human end of touch and bodily perception and machine haptics is tactile feedback technology. Via a computer, a haptic system can simulate touch sensation through forces, vibrations, and the like. One excellent application for it involves museum objects—a Classical bust, a tapestry, a carved ivory piece—that blind visitors to the museum cannot experience in any way. These visitors lack a sense of sight, and museum rules forbid touching the objects. With haptic technology, we are able to create a virtual tactile experience of that object.

This is where 3D laser scanning comes in. We use the scanner to produce a historical artifact, for example, a scan of an ivory box. We then fiddle with the file to make it “feelable.” The effect is fairly jaw-dropping when you first experience it. You are looking at a screen that shows an object in three dimensions that does not strictly speaking exist, yet you can feel its contours and tactile details.

This work depends on 3D digital scanning, which when I first investigated it, was a difficult product area to navigate. I suppose to some extent it still is. The 3D Digital scanner was the first unit our laboratory bought, but over a year of research came first. Mostly that was me, traveling to trade shows and exhibitions. Our need was for a scanning system with flexibility of setup and powerful software. Eventually we would be wishing to produce every object as surface geometry with an accurate visual overlay—a camera image. That’s our common practice, and it works well. I was reassured to see that 3D Digital’s product had such capability and ease of use for such a reasonable, affordable price. It takes some user sophistication to get the most out of 3DD’s SLIM software, but the results are well worth it.

One project we would like to tackle involves cane navigation for the blind. When you see a blind person moving confidently through a city environment using a special cane, that is the result of lengthy, specialized training. There is a long waiting list to receive that training. Haptic technology is the only way to computer-simulate the environment, but it would have to be done quite flawlessly, or the user would be put at risk. But that’s an example of what’s going on in fields like 3D laser scanning and haptic technology—wonderful new uses and applications are occurring to people all the time.

David Prytherch
Senior Research Fellow in Haptics and
Human Computer Interaction
Birmingham City University
Birmingham, UK