By SIGMADESIGN Electrical Engineer

Image Credit:  Photographer: Laura Dutelle

The most impactful advances in technology are those which enhance the human experience and bring significant value to our lives. Our most valued technologies keep us warm, safe, connected with our loved ones, and enable us to learn, grow, and share our ideas. In recent decades, popular technologies provide us with experiences that also interact with our senses through video, audio, and physical interactions.

At SIGMADESIGN we are designing products that listen to the user. These products interpret what the user is doing and react accordingly through intricate combinations of sensors, actuators, and firmware for which the design is driven by the customer experience. Our teams work closely with our clients and industry partners in a fluid design process where testing is not limited to only quality and compliance. It is driven by the value we bring to the user’s life and the insight of the users themselves found in the products we design.



One application of growing interest at SIGMADESIGN is the use of haptic feedback (or simply, haptics). Haptic systems use these combinations of sensors, actuators and software to interact with a user in a way that simulates a physical touch.

When you tap an icon on your smart phone and receive a short vibration, use your iWatch to “feel” a friend’s heartbeat or sit down in a race car arcade game and feel the steering wheel tension while turning a corner at Indy 500 speeds, you are engaged in a haptic experience.

Now, imagine you are online looking for a beach vacation, you may be able to see a video of the beach and hear the waves crashing against the shore but you would be hard pressed to find a way to simulate the feeling of sand in your hands while sitting in your living room. Haptics in technology ultimately aims to do just that, interact with a user at a virtual level to provide the physical experience of touch.

Interest in haptics has largely been driven by gaming enthusiast from the early days of vibrating game controllers to current day virtual reality applications. Locally, Washington State University Vancouver boasts a mechatronics program that has patented technologies in magnetorheological (MR) brakes for applications in haptics, such as the haptic glove that is designed to simulate grasping and touching items in a virtual reality setting.

Professor Hakan Gurocak, founding Director of the School of Engineering and Computer Science at WSUV, has a bold vision for haptics in the future of online shopping, long-distance collaboration in manufacturing applications, medical training and more. Hakan’s long list of publications includes applications for devices that simulate human tissue cutting and needle insertion for medical training purposes. You can learn more about Hakan’s research on his web page.


Devices used for medical training is perhaps one of the most interesting applications in haptics with the advent of robotic assisted surgery processes such as offered by the da Vinci Surgical System. The device, through the use of 3D high definition cameras and slender robotic arms equipped with a variety of surgical tools, facilitates a variety of complex surgeries using a minimally invasive approach.


da Vinci Surgical System

The da Vinci system is operated by a surgeon through a console which sits next to the patient and in some cases in a different room or even country. This presents a challenge as a surgeon relies on tactile feedback for a variety of mission critical items such as incision depth, of which visual feedback alone may be insufficient. Haptic feedback, available in some robotic surgical systems on the market today, would enable a surgeon to feel the pressure from the tissue of the patient they are operating on, allowing the systems to operate at a wider range of surgical capability. Ultimately the patient wins when a surgeon’s capabilities are extended beyond the limitations of the human ability, such as operating in extremely small spaces such as infant and cardiac surgery.



While you don’t have to be a highly specialized surgeon or a zombie fighting virtual reality gamer to find value in haptics, just think about your human experience. Luxury automobiles using haptics to communicate safety warnings and keep the drivers attention on the road and robots used to disable bombs or rescue victims in burning buildings can all benefit from touch feedback to the controller, ultimately saving lives. Or imagine hugging a loved one a thousand miles away when saying goodnight from your skype chat, touching the fabric of a blanket while shopping online, or handling the products your team is currently designing a continent away. This is the vision of haptics. And while feeling sand in between your toes is a ways into the future of haptics applications, Engineers at SIGMADESIGN are working with technologies that help our clients realize their customers’ most valuable experiences through their products.