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Microsoft scientists researching 'touchable 3D' technology

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Research compiled by Microsoft's scientists may pave the way for a new kind of "touchable 3D" technology, which would allow uses to feel objects on screen, according to research reports from Microsoft.

The Natural Interaction Research team at Microsoft set up a multi-touch, stereo-vision 3D display on a multidirectional robot arm and equipped support for what they call "kinaesthetic haptic sense." The sense mimics the feel of different materials and provides feedback to those who touch the screen, a physical 3D simulation with force feedback against users' hands.

On-screen objects were given different textural qualities — hard stone blocks and softer, spongy objects. According to the report, participants of the study were able to identify the objects based on touch when interacting with a blank screen, mimicking the sensation of being "blindfolded."

"They couldn't see anything, and the shapes were simple objects," said principal researcher Mike Sinclair in the report. "We knew beforehand that complicated objects wouldn't work, but some of the objects were reasonably sophisticated; a pyramid, a wedge, a cylinder. I'd say these results were the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the project."

The touchable part of the screen was a small force that kept constant, light contact with the finger.

"It's a very lightweight force that pushes back to follow the finger and maintain constant contact," Sinclair said. "At first, it feels as though you are touching a hard wall that's easy to push, but you get used to it very quickly because it supplies only a few ounces of force against the finger. Since touchscreen interactions require the user's finger to remain in contact with the surface, the main challenge of the idle mode is to ensure that the screen remains in contact with the fingertip regardless of the direction that the fingertip is moving, either away or toward the user."

Microsoft's full report is available on their research website.