Robot hand will allow 'touching' over the Net

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 April, 2010, 12:00am

Chinese University has developed a robot hand, which gives internet users a feeling of touch when they interact online.

After a user puts sensors on his arm, the robot hand can simulate movements of the user's fingers. The palm can shake hands, do the 'V' for peace sign or indicate okay.

The technology is aimed at people who use instant messaging software such as MSN or QQ, Professor Liu Yun-hui of the university's department of mechanical and automation engineering said.

'Now they can see images [during chats] but cannot sense movements,' he said.

The robot hand would make touching possible. Such physical interaction was important for family members who lived far from each other, he said. For example, the elderly could caress their grandchildren. To make interaction possible, each person involved in such a cyber encounter must wear a watch-like sensor, which detected electromyography - electronic signals generated by muscle contractions.

Movements in each finger generate their own signals. The strength in a user's hand can also be detected.

Muscle signals are analysed by the software and transmitted to the other party through the internet.

At a demonstration of the robot hand yesterday, response times lagged slightly - the hand moved split seconds after the user made gestures.

That delay would be eliminated when the robot hand was released on the market this Christmas, Liu said. By then the robot hand would be more lifelike, with soft artificial skin.

In contrast to robot hands used in research or industry, which cost around HK$300,000, Chinese University's cyber-hand will sell for US$100, with a sensor. Liu said it would be the first robot hand available to internet users worldwide.

Liu said he and his team began researching the concept in September. The Innovation and Technology Commission paid HK$1 million towards development.

A patent application was under way in the United States and on the mainland. New features such as temperature detection could be incorporated into the technology later. The university was also researching whether the technology could be used to help rehabilitate stroke patients. Patients might be able to do physiotherapy at home while being monitored from afar and their hand movements could tell doctors how far they have recovered.