Revolutionizing Softness Perception in Robotics

Summary: Researchers developed SORI, a groundbreaking Softness Rendering Interface that can accurately simulate the perception of softness, addressing a long-standing challenge in robotics. By distinguishing between cutaneous and kinesthetic cues, SORI can replicate the softness of various materials, from marshmallows to beating hearts, offering vast applications in medicine, deep-sea exploration, and robot-assisted agriculture. This innovation not only advances the field of robotics but also provides a novel way to digitally transfer the sensation of touch, bridging a gap in human-robot interaction.

Key Facts:

  1. Dual Cue Simulation: SORI’s unique ability to separate cutaneous from kinesthetic cues allows it to recreate complex tactile sensations, enabling a more nuanced perception of softness.
  2. Wide-Ranging Applications: From medical training and surgical assistance to space and underwater exploration, SORI’s technology promises to enhance precision and sensory feedback in critical tasks.
  3. Personalized Softness Perception: The interface considers individual differences in fingertip geometry, ensuring accurate softness rendering tailored to each user.

Source: EPFL

The perception of softness can be taken for granted, but it plays a crucial role in many actions and interactions – from judging the ripeness of an avocado to conducting a medical exam, or holding the hand of a loved one. But understanding and reproducing softness perception is challenging, because it involves so many sensory and cognitive processes.

Robotics researchers have tried to address this challenge with haptic devices, but previous attempts have not distinguished between two primary elements of softness perception: cutaneous cues (sensory feedback from the skin of the fingertip), and kinesthetic cues (feedback about the amount of force on the finger joint).

This shows the SORI sensor.
SORI (Softness Rendering Interface). Credit: Jamani Caillet

“If you press on a marshmallow with your fingertip, it’s easy to tell that it’s soft. But if you place a hard biscuit on top of that marshmallow and press again, you can still tell that the soft marshmallow is underneath, even though your fingertip is touching a hard surface,” explains Mustafa Mete, a PhD student in the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab in the School of Engineering.

“We wanted to see if we could create a robotic platform that can do the same.”

With SORI (Softness Rendering Interface), the RRL, led by Jamie Paik, has achieved just that. By decoupling cutaneous and kinesthetic cues, SORI faithfully recreate the softness of a range of real materials, filling a gap in the robotics field enabling many applications where softness sensation is critical – from deep-sea exploration to robot-assisted surgery.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).

We all feel softness differently

Mete explains that neuroscientific and psychological studies show that cutaneous cues are largely based on how much skin is in contact with a surface, which is often related in part to the deformation of the object. In other words, a surface that envelopes a greater area of your fingertip will be perceived as softer. But because human fingertips vary widely in size and firmness, one finger may make greater contact with a given surface than another.

“We realized that the softness I feel may not be the same as the softness you feel, because of our different finger shapes. So, for our study, we first had to develop parameters for the geometries of a fingertip and its contact surface in order to estimate the softness cues for that fingertip,” Mete explains.

Then, the researchers extracted the softness parameters from a range of different materials, and mapped both sets of parameters onto the SORI device.

Building on the RRL’s trademark origami robot research, which has fueled spinoffs for reconfigurable environments and a haptic joystick, SORI is equipped with motor-driven origami joints that can be modulated to become stiffer or more supple. Perched atop the joints is a dimpled silicone membrane. A flow of air inflates the membrane to varying degrees, to envelop a fingertip placed at its center.

With this novel decoupling of kinesthetic and cutaneous functionality, SORI succeeded in recreating the softness of a range of materials – including beef, salmon, and marshmallow – over the course of several experiments with two human volunteers. It also mimicked materials with both soft and firm attributes (such as a biscuit on top of a marshmallow, or a leather-bound book). In one virtual experiment, SORI even reproduced the sensation of a beating heart, to demonstrate its efficacy at rendering soft materials in motion.

Medicine is therefore a primary area of potential application for this technology; for example, to train medical students to detect cancerous tumors, or to provide crucial sensory feedback to surgeons using robots to perform operations.

Other applications include robot-assisted exploration of space or the deep ocean, where the device could enable scientists to feel the softness of a discovered object from a remote location. SORI is also a potential answer to one of the biggest challenges in robot-assisted agriculture: harvesting tender fruits and vegetables without crushing them.

“This is not intended to act as a softness sensor for robots, but to transfer the feeling of ‘touch’ digitally, just like sending photos or music,” Mete summarizes.

About this robotics research news

Author: Celia Luterbacher
Source: EPFL
Contact: Celia Luterbacher – EPFL
Image: The image is credited to Jamani Caillet

Original Research: Closed access.
SORI: A Softness Rendering Interface to Unravel the Nature of Softness Perception” by Mustafa Mete et al. PNAS


SORI: A Softness Rendering Interface to Unravel the Nature of Softness Perception

Tactile perception of softness serves a critical role in the survival, well-being, and social interaction among various species, including humans. This perception informs activities from food selection in animals to medical palpation for disease detection in humans.

Despite its fundamental importance, a comprehensive understanding of how softness is neurologically and cognitively processed remains elusive. Previous research has demonstrated that the somatosensory system leverages both cutaneous and kinesthetic cues for the sensation of softness.

Factors such as contact area, depth, and force play a particularly critical role in sensations experienced at the fingertips. Yet, existing haptic technologies designed to explore this phenomenon are limited, as they often couple force and contact area, failing to provide a real-world experience of softness perception.

Our research introduces the softness-rendering interface (SORI), a haptic softness display designed to bridge this knowledge gap. Unlike its predecessors, SORI has the unique ability to decouple contact area and force, thereby allowing for a quantitative representation of softness sensations at the fingertips.

Furthermore, SORI incorporates individual physical fingertip properties and model-based softness cue estimation and mapping to provide a highly personalized experience. Utilizing this method, SORI quantitatively replicates the sensation of softness on stationary, dynamic, homogeneous, and heterogeneous surfaces.

We demonstrate that SORI accurately renders the surfaces of both virtual and daily objects, thereby presenting opportunities across a range of fields, from teleoperation to medical technology.

Finally, our proposed method and SORI will expedite psychological and neuroscience research to unlock the nature of softness perception.

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