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SMS at your Fingertips

Neuro scientists in Bonn aim to communicate by sense of touch

The interpersonal exchange of information is mostly achieved using sounds and images. Neuro scientists at Bonn University are now aiming to utilise the sense of touch for communication. SMS messages would then be read, for example, using  the fingertips, and  the car steering wheel would be able to convey a warning in difficult situations on the road, or provide directions as to the correct rout. Specially designed software would develop the most appropriate "touch vocabulary" for each individual user. The researchers have now applied for a patent for their process, and are to present their first functioning model at the Hanover Trade Fair from 19 - 24 April (Pavilion 18, stand AO2).

The  finger tips quiver and  tingle, tiny pins press into your skin and stimulate the sensitive tactile sensors. No doubt about it. That was an e-mail "at" sign Thomas Schieder laughs. "Actually, it was a spiral. But if thatŽs how you sense it, then it is an @, and thatŽs that".

Carsten WilksŽ hand is encased in a plastic mould. Under each of his fingertips there is a module, just a few millimetres long, bearing eight tiny pins which are able to rise and fall. Using Palm-PDA, a sort of electronic notebook, Schieder directs which group of pins should rise, and when. In this way, he generates a specific place-time pattern under the fingers of his fellow student, which is perceptible as an eight, a wave or simply as - an @.

Sensitive and fast

"For most animals - even for many primates - the senses of  touch and  smell are far more important than hearing or sight", says Professor Rolf Eckmiller, a neuro scientist in Bonn.  "In our case, this channel of communication is more or less blocked, and our aim is to bore it out again". One of  the potential applications which the developers can conceive for their idea, dubbed "SensoTrans" (Signal converter for the transformation of sensual perceptions), lies in the field of communications electronics providing, for example, purely tactile SMS transmission for future generations of mobiles. But this process could also be applied in the field of medical engineering for the reproduction of acoustic signals for the deaf, or as a visual aid for the blind.

The proverbial fineness of our sense of touch is produced by some 100 tactile sensory cells per square centimetre. This tactile sense is able to register vibrations with deflections of under 0.01 millimetres - and that at a frequency of up to 500 oscillations per second. "Of course, we are not intending to transmit letters via this tactile channel", Professor Eckmiller explains. "So we are not able to  compete with the eye. What interests us is the rapid transmission of sensory units, such as 'I',  'you', 'in an hour', or 'to Bonn', so that it would be possible, for instance, given an appropriately equipped mobile, to send the tactile SMS sentence, 'I shall be home in an hour' ".

Individual Tactile Language

One advantage for the inventors is the fact that many people will intuitively grasp the significance of specific pin movements. "Carsten Wilks who, like Thomas Schieder, is studying for his Ph.D. in Professor EckmillerŽs study group, explained that "if we generate a wave on the index finger which flows towards the user, many people will automatically associate it with the term 'I'; and if the wave flows away from the user, then it will mostly be interpreted as meaning 'you' ".  But here, too, there are individual differences; many people interpret tactile  stimulation in most unexpected ways. However, the future users of "tactile mobiles" cannot be  asked to  spend weeks swotting up their "tactile vocabulary". "We want these devices to adapt themselves to their owners, says Wilks: training software is being developed to furnish the user with a selection of "tactile terms"  for each word he wishes  to use. The user will then be able to select the ones most readily approaching his requirements. From these, the computer programme will then create further variations and so optimise the transformation of this term into pin movements until the user is satisfied.

This process can perhaps be most closely compared to an English course in which each student can seek out for himself the most  memorable translation. Nobody would be likely to choose the English "get" as a translation of the German word "bekommen"; most would take the more easily remembered "become", which in reality, unfortunately, means "werden".

Personal contact:
Professor Dr. Rolf Eckmiller
Institut für Informatik VI der Universität Bonn
Telefon: 0228/73-4422
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