SynTouch Is Giving Robots the Ability to Feel Textures Like Humans Do

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

There’s just nothing like holding a new product in your hands. You can look at a thousand photos, watch a million videos and still not get a sense of the texture and feel of, say, a pair of raw denim jeans. But for the companies making such products, ensuring a consistency of feel can be a hassle. That’s where robots come in.

If you’re a textile vendor, you can ask a manufacturer to dye a set of sheets a particular color, using a standard such as the Pantone Color Matching System to specify exactly the color you want. But if you try describing how you want those sheets to feel, well, that’s another matter entirely. The process of describing and evaluating textures is often subjective. A vendor will send samples to customer, who might pass them around to several different people to feel and, eventually, try to come to a consensus about the best ones, or the ones that come closest to the desired texture.

Organizations like the International Organization for Standardization offer some industrial standards for textures, but Matt Borzage, co-founder of the robotics company SynTouch, says their standards often fall short. “We know this because most companies revert to shipping physical samples to customers or flying their in-house experts from factory to factory instead of communicating using their standard measurements,” he says.

SynTouch has another solution: a haptic sensor that provides robots with a sense of touch. The company used this sensor to develop the SynTouch Standard, a taxonomy of more than 500 materials ranging from synthetic fabrics to natural materials like stone. The standard is based on 15 factors, including coarseness, smoothness, friction and thermal properties. The idea is to create a standardized process to measure and classify the texture of any flat surface, taking the subjectivity out of the question of whether two objects feel the same.

SynTouch is a spin-off of the Medical Device Development Facility of the University of Southern California, where the team initially focused on prosthetics. And one of its core insights is this: When you touch something, you are doing more than sensing the surface of that object. You’re also changing it, however subtly. Your finger emits heat, and no matter how gentle you are, you exert an almost imperceptible amount of pressure. In other words, you aren’t just feeling the material, you’re feeling its reaction to your touch. Syntouch’s BioTac sensor tries to emulate this by radiating heat and exerting pressure so the surface it measures changes in much the same way it would if a person were touching it.

The company is still working in the prosthetics industry and is focusing on giving artificial hands “reflexes” by making them to respond to different haptic sensations. But SynTouch is exploring other areas. Borzage says the company’s customers for the SynTouch Standard taxonomy include automakers, consumer electronics firms, and apparel companies. Some want to standardize a product, while others want to figure out if a synthetic material—an artificial leather, for example—feels like the real thing. It’s one more example of robots doing a job once only humans could do. But now it’s also robots feeling what once only humans could feel.


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