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Researchers to test haptic tech in education


Mark Say Managing Editor


Researchers from three universities have won funding to work on the possibilities of haptic technology in education and sustainability.

Schoolchildren with smartphones

A team from the Open University, University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London, along with charity Learning through Landscapes, has received £828,000 as part of the new round from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It amounts to over 80% of the funding with rest of the £1.04 million for the project coming from the host Open University.

Haptic technology creates the experience of touch and can be applied to smartphone screens. The research team is aiming to simulate the experience of touching the natural world to encourage schoolchildren’s sensory explorations of nature, with the further aim of encouraging efforts in environmental sustainability over the long term.

The haptic adaptor kit will be fitted to pre-existing smartphones and tablets to help ensure the sustainability of the project and reduce waste.

Touchscreen friction

The adaptors work by modulating the friction of the touchscreen, either through electrostatic methods or by vibrating the surface at ultrasound frequencies to create an air layer beneath the finger. When the surface friction is controlled as a function of image pixels under the finger it provides the sensation of texture.

In this way, images on an ordinary phone screen can be made to feel like a leaf or a feather, or even animal fur, UKRI said.

The technologies will be developed at the Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, and co-created in schools with project partners.

UKRI said that recent analysis of the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak on children has shown a link between low educational attainment and reduced access to the outdoors, and that the use of haptic technologies could foster a greater interest in nature.

Professor Advaith Siddharthan from the Open University said: “Our project develops technologies that encourage pupils to touch and feel, in order to provoke different scientific questions and inquiries and to help connect with nature. Why is a bumblebee so much hairier than a wasp? Why do oak trees have a rougher bark than beech?”

Image from iStock, Dolgachov

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