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Ambient Haptic Systems

Kanav Kahol
Vincent Hayward, IEEE
Stephen Brewster

Pages: pp. 121-122

Ambient systems employ devices that are seamlessly integrated in a user's environment, providing unobtrusive and interactive access to digital media. These devices, when networked in systems of sensors, actuators, and computational units, can support intelligent, adaptive machine behavior.

Haptics, as a naturally interactive communication modality, has an important and indispensable role to play in the evolution of user-centered interfaces. The haptic modality is largely untapped, while the vision and auditory modalities are often saturated. The advent of sophisticated haptic interfaces and tangible interfaces makes it possible to employ haptics in ubiquitous and veridical interactions between people and technology, or between people and people, providing supplementary and complementary information from a separate information channel. As a result, we see an explosion of applications of haptics in vehicle cockpits with clear benefits for safety; more effective portable information and communication devices; rethought and retooled sensory substitution systems for adaptive technologies and accessibility; games in homes and in public places; home automation (domotics) with benefits for energy conservation; improved public furniture with better user interfaces; office equipment and engineering workstations; ambient interfaces to virtual worlds; medical devices evolving toward greater safety and accuracy; interactive museums; home appliances; emerging technologies for home assisted living; advanced prosthetics, etc.

This special issue is about the art and the science of haptics in such situations. It aims at providing a broad overview of the field through an introductory article as well as a collection of focused research studies in the area of ambient haptic systems. The featured articles span several application domains and make important contributions to ambient haptics.

The opening article by Karon E. MacLean provides an introduction to ambient interfaces and the applicability of haptic interfaces in ambient interfaces. The article discusses the virtues, challenges, and opportunities of employing the haptic modality in truly ubiquitous interfaces that engage humans in a multimodal manner. Researchers in ambient haptic systems will be able to use the examples cited in the article as well as the design principles that are dicussed as the basis for future research.

The second article by Antal Haans and Wijnand A. IJsselsteijn introduces the notion of "virtual Midas touch." Based on the phenomenon of inducing conciliatory behavior through subtle touch on the arm, the paper presents an automated system to provide haptic signals through a vibrotactile arm band to induce a similar affective response. This paper aims to exploit the intimate relation between affect and haptics and provides a design example of a haptic ambient system though a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis for validation.

The third article, authored by Annie Rydström, Robert Broström, and Peter Bengtsson describes an experiment to functionally test a haptic interface in a car. Driving is a complex activity requiring significant amount of visual and auditory resources. Well-designed ambient haptic systems can provide intuitive interaction. The methodology for design and evaluation of in-car haptic interfaces has therefore become an active research area. This paper focuses on the applicability of knob-based haptic interface to different types of tasks while driving and provides designers with valuable information on what type of tasks may or may not be performed efficiently with haptic sensations.

Yon Visell, Alvin Law, and Jeremy R. Cooperstock present their work on novel research direction of using floor surfaces as haptic interfaces in an ambient manner in the fourth article. Sensations arising from interaction with the floor that are sensed by feet are essential during locomotion and balancing. However, sensations from the floor can also be used for interaction. The authors present a system to provide ambient information through a floor-based ambient haptic system, which leads a trend toward going beyond the hand to interact meaningfully with haptic interfaces.

Audio-haptic ambient interfaces are poised to play an important role in the development of ubiquitous environments. The paper by Maria Karam, Frank A. Russo, and Deborah I. Fels uses the general principle of sensory substitution to develop a cross modal audio-haptic system able to represent music through a haptic interface embedded in a chair. Sensory substitution has been around since the 1920s but many of its possibilities are still untapped. This paper presents a model that aims to sense content, structure, and affective dimension of music and present it through a haptic interface.

Michael Strolz, Alexander Mörtl, Michael Gräf, and Martin Buss describe a system that uses haptics to control an automated car door. Automated car doors can provide new functions beyond opening and closing automatically. They can avoid collisions, provide personalized feel of the door for users, and effectively communicate a variety of messages via the haptic channel. The authors use impedance control to provide safe and reliable control with haptic feedback. Usability testing demonstrates the validity of the approach.


These six papers were selected from an unexpectedly high number of submissions to the special issue. While the number of submissions reflects the importance of ambient haptic systems research, it posed a daunting task for us; one that we would not have completed without the help of numerous reviewers. We would like to express our thanks to all of the reviewers, many of whom reviewed several papers. We would also like to thank Ed Colgate who, with a firm hand on the tiller and a steady eye on the distant shore, guided us to safe port through the difficult shoals of publishing a special issue. Acknowledgments are also due to Susan Lederman and Domenico Prattichizzo with the many difficulties that appeared on the way.

Kanav Kahaol

Vincent Hayward

Stephen Brewster

Guest Editors

About the Authors

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Kanav Kahol is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Arizona State University. He is the manager of the Human Machine Symbiosis Lab. He is affiliated with Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, Phoenix, Arizona, as a research faculty member in simulation education and training center (SimET Center). Dr. Kahol's primary research interest lies in the design, development, and evaluation of haptic user interfaces. He views haptic interfaces as a major component of developing human machine symbiotic entities. In keeping with this view, he focuses on an interdisciplinary approach to research in haptics spanning cognitive psychology, neurology, computer science, signal processing, and informatics. He has conducted applied research in the areas of medical simulation and multimodal user interfaces, including mobile device interfaces and assistive and rehabilitative devices. Dr. Kahol has published several journal papers and conference papers. He is also the organizer of workshops and special issues in journals pertaining to haptics research. Please visit for more information.
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Vincent Hayward received the Diplôme d'Ingénieur from the Ecole Centrale de Nantes in 1978 and the PhD degree in computer science in 1981 from the University of Paris XI. He then became a postoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor (1982), both at Purdue University. He then joined CNRS, France as Chargé de Recherches (1983-1986). In 1987, he joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill University as an adjunct and then an assistant professor. In 1994, he became an associate professor and a full professor in 2006. He was the director of the McGill Center for Intelligent Machines (2001-2004). In 2006-2007, he was professeur invité, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, France (UPMC). Dr. Hayward cofounded spin-off companies, received several best paper and research awards, including the NASA Space Act Tech Brief Award (1991) and the E. (Ben) & Mary Hochhausen Award for Research in Adaptive Technology For Blind and Visually Impaired Persons (2002). He is a cofounder of the Experimental Robotics Symposia, was program vice-chair of the 1998 IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation, program vice-chair of ISR2000, and is a past associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Robotics and Automation. He is presently on the Governing board of Haptics-e, and the editorial boards of the ACM Transactions on Applied Perception and the IEEE Transactions on Haptics. He is a fellow of the IEEE. As of 2008, he holds the "Chaire d'Haptique" at UPMC.
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Stephen Brewster has been a professor of human-computer interaction in the Department of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow since 2001. He is currently an EPSRC Advanced Research Fellow and studies the use of multimodal interactions for a range of different application, focusing on novel interfaces for mobile devices. His research focuses on multimodal human computer interaction, or using multiple sensory modalities (particularly hearing, touch and smell) to create richer interactions between human and computer. His work has a strong experimental focus, applying perceptual research to practical situations. He has shown that novel use of multimodality can significantly improve usability in a wide range of situations, for mobile users, visually-impaired people, older users and in medical applications. More information is available at
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