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How 3D Touchscreen With Tactile Feedback Could Save Lives

Posted on Jul 15, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: 3d touchscreen, brain scans, brain tissue, Cancer, microsoft, research

Microsoft have developed a touchscreen that displays 3D images that can be felt and manipulated by its users. The prototype consists of an LCD flat panel screen that has been modified with force sensors and a moveable robotic arm. Microsoft's research team claim that they can simulate the shape and weight of onscreen objects by controlling the resistance to users' fingertips when operating the device.

A computer adjusts the size and perspective of the graphics to create a 3D effect on the screen. What's new about this prototype is its tactile abilities. The prototype works by pushing back lightly against users' fingers when they come into contact with the screen in order to keep the finger touching it. If the user then presses against it, the machine's robotic arm pulls the screen backwards with equal force; if they attempt to retract their finger, the arm moves the screen back towards them. This resistance is seen as the key to simulating a physical sense of touching an object.

Moreover, the prototype can also provide a sense of shape to its user. It achieves this by adjusting the position of the screen in order to match the virtual contours of an object as the user moves their finger over the object's onscreen surface. The researcher team have found that the human brain is willing to accept a virtual world as real when "the senses merge with stereo vision", and the visual element of the experience corresponds to the hand's depth perception.

The device is still a prototype,  but Microsoft already envisage medical uses for it in the future. At this early stage, researchers suggest that it could allow doctors to explore body scans in an unprecedented way. Microsoft have already created a demonstration using MRI brain scans to show how doctors could navigate through the slices of the brain simply by touching the LCD screen, and this would also allow the doctors to leave markers at certain layers of the digital brain to make these sections easier to return to later on. The research team suggest that in time, their device could be used to locate and gain haptic feedback on anomalies, such as tumours in the brain, due to the different responses of hard and soft tissues when touched on the tactile screen.

Such uses may still be quite a way off, as scientists suggest that the 3D tactile screens would need to be more responsive and accurate in their indication of textures to be reliable enough to use in the detection of tumours. Dr Peter Weller, the head of the Centre for Health Informatics at City University, London, described Microsoft's example of the brain scan as "a bit artificial", but could envisage a use for it "for a doctor doing teleconsultancy work. It would mean the patient could be in another country or hospital and the doctor could feel their glands or abdomen from a distance."

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