It may be easy for clothing designers to detail a textile manufacturer about colour and the exact measurement of the garment, but explaining how it should feel might be a difficult task. Keeping this in mind SynTouch has come up with a Haptic sensor called BioTac sensor, that equips robots with a sense of touch.
The company used this sensor to develop the SynTouch Standard, taxonomy of more than 500 materials ranging from synthetic fabrics to natural materials like stone. The standard is based on 15 factors, including coarseness, smoothness, friction and thermal properties. The idea is to create a standardised process to measure and classify the texture of any flat surface, taking the subjectivity out of the question of whether two objects feel the same.
SynTouch, which is a by-product of the Medical Device Development Facility of the University of Southern California, where the team initially focused on prosthetics, put its insight as follows: ‘When you touch something, you are doing more than sensing the surface of that object. You’re also changing it, however subtly. Your finger emits heat, and no matter how gentle you are, you exert an almost imperceptible amount of pressure. In other words, you aren’t just feeling the material; you’re feeling its reaction to your touch.
Syntouch’s BioTac sensor tries to imitate radiating heat and exerting pressure, so that the surface it measures changes in much the same way it would if a person were touching it.
Matt Borzage, the co-founder of the robotics firm SynTouch, says, “For every piece of clothing you can find on store shelves, it’s likely that several people spent hours passing fabric samples back and forth to pick the one that feels just right. While some groups like the International Organization for Standardization have tried to develop textile standards, but none has taken hold of the textile industry. Most companies revert to shipping physical samples to customers or flying their in-house experts from factory to factory instead of communicating using their standard measurements.”
The company is still working in the prosthetics industry, and is focusing on giving artificial hand “reflexes” by making them respond to different haptic sensations, apart from exploring other areas.
Borzage says the company’s customers for the SynTouch Standard taxonomy include automakers, consumer electronics firms and apparel companies. Some want to standardize a product, while others want to figure out if a synthetic material — artificial leather, for example — feels like the real thing. It’s one more example of robots doing a job once only humans could do. But now it’s also robots feeling what once only humans could.