Haptics: Learning through Touch

Perhaps surprisingly, the term “haptics” was first introduced in 1931 and its origins can be traced back to the Greek words haptikos meaning able to touch and haptesthai which translates to able to lay hold of (Revesz, 1950; Krueger, 1989). Today the term, in its broadest sense, encompasses the study of touch and the human interaction with the external environment via touch.

The field of haptics, inherently multidisciplinary, involves research from engineering, robotics, developmental and experimental psychology, cognitive science, computer science, and educational technology.

This field has grown dramatically as haptic researchers are involved in the development, testing, and refinement of tactile and force feedback devices as well as supporting software that allow users to sense ("feel") and manipulate three-dimensional virtual objects (McLaughlin, Hespanha & Sukhatme, 2002).

In addition to basic psychophysical research on human haptics, work is being done in application areas such as surgical simulation, medical training, scientific visualization, and assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired. Haptics has been added to virtual reality environments. Our work focuses on augmenting scientific visualizations with haptics for use in an educational setting.

Haptics and Education

As part of this project we are exploring the impact of haptics on students' learning of science concepts. For educators, involving students in consciously choosing to investigate the properties of an object is a powerful motivator and increases attention to learning. Thus far, the results of our studies have found haptics to be motivating-- students find the haptic technology exciting, engaging, and interesting.


Haptic Devices

A haptic interface is a device which allows a user to interact with a computer by receiving tactile and kinesthetic feedback. A All haptic interface devices share the unparalleled ability to provide for simultaneous information exchange between a user and a machine as depicted below.

A small sample of available devices: MOMO Racing by Logitech; Speed Force by Logitech; The Phantom by Sensible Technology; CyberGrasp by Immersion Corporation; DELTA by Force Dimension; Force Feedback2 Joystick by Microscoft; Falcon


Our Research


This project is designed to investigate the efficacy of real-time, interactive visuohaptic (visualization and force feedback) simulations to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts: heat, temperature, and Brownian motion. It focuses on the learning of non-contact forces, where conceptualization of force fields, traditionally represented visually by field lines, may be enhanced by the ability to feel the forces directly. Building upon our prior work developing visuohaptic simulations for undergraduate engineering students to learn important nanotechnology concepts, we propose to extend our current work with middle and high school students in an effort to explore when and why visuohaptic simulations can help students conceptualizing non-contact forces.

Previous Work

In one study (Jones et al., 2003), we explored a new instructional tool (the nanoManipulator) that combines the PHANToM and an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). With this new haptics application, students are able to feel nanosized materials such as viruses that are imaged under the AFM (described further below). In essence the user is afforded the opportunity to have a “hands-on” experience with objects at the nanometer scale that are too small to be touched or even seen otherwise. We examined how tactile and kinesthetic feedback influences students' learning about virus structure and function. This research with middle and high school students found that students found the experience engaging and developed more positive attitudes about science. Additionally, students showed significant gains in their understanding of viruses (particularly virus morphology and diversity of types).

Another study examined the differential impact of augmenting the computer mediated inquiry three feedback devices: the PHANToM (a sophisticated haptic desktop device), a Sidewinder (a haptic gaming joystick), and a mouse (no haptic feedback). Results suggest that the addition of haptic feedback provides a more immersive learning environment that not only makes the instruction more engaging but may also influence the way in which the students construct their understandings about viruses as evidenced by an increase in their use of spontaneously generated analogies.

More recent work is exploring how the addition of haptic feedback to computer-generated 3-D virtual models of an animal cell influences middle school students' understandings of cell concepts. The Haptic Cell Exploration instructional program (shown below) begins with a virtual model that depicts the 3-D nature and spatial arrangement of an animal cell including its typical parts (organelles).

 The structural differences (i.e. relative size, surface area, texture, shape, elasticity & rigidity) of the parts are emphasized. Students can “poke' through the cell membrane, “feel” the viscosity of the cytoplasm, and “touch” the rough endoplasmic reticulum. The program also highlights the mechanisms behind the cell membrane's selective permeability. Students learn how certain molecules traverse the membrane via the various types of passive transport by trying to pass these substances through the membrane and “feeling” the associated forces.


Haptic Perception

Investigating the efficacy of haptic technology as an educational tool has caused our group to consider more deeply haptic perception and the interactions between visual and haptic information. Haptic perception involves sensors in the skin as well as the hand and arm. The movement that accompanies hands-on exploration involves different types of mechanoreceptors in the skin (involving deformation, thermoreception, and vibration of the skin), as well as receptors in the muscles, tendons, and joints involved in movement of the object (Verry, 1998).

For the science learner, kinesthetics allows the individual to explore concepts related to location, range, speed, acceleration, tension, and friction. Haptics enables the learner to identify hardness, density, size, outline, shape, texture, oiliness, wetness, and dampness (involving both temperature and pressure sensations) (Druyan, 1997; Schiffman, 1976).

Haptic Learning

Haptic learning plays an important role in a number of different learning environments. Students with visual impairments depend on haptics for learning through the use of Braille as well as other strategies (Sathian, 2000). Looked at from a constructivist's perspective, the haptic augmentation of computer-generated 3-D virtual environments, in which the student is an active participant, can be a powerful teaching tool (Lochhead, 1988; Loucks-Horsley, et al. 1990; Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

The addition of haptics affords students the opportunity to become more fully immersed in this process of meaning-making; taking advantage of tactile, kinesthetic, experiential, and embodied knowledge in new ways.


In the end, the use of haptics in education is bound only by our imagination.