BUFFALO, NY—A new tool for transmitting physical touch to the virtual world enables users to replicate in real time on a personal computer the physical act of sculpting a block of clay or other malleable material. The resulting 3D electronic shape shown on the computer screen can then be fine tuned for product design using standard computer-aided design and modeling software.

Developed by the Virtual Reality Lab at the University of Buffalo, the technology uses what researchers have dubbed the "ModelGlove," which records the force exerted by a hand when depressing and shaping a block of clay. This force-feedback information, as well as information on hand position and speed of fingertip motion, is instantaneously communicated to a computer where a virtual block of clay-possessing the characteristics mimicking the physical properties of the clay-is shaped precisely to the contouring of the actual clay.

In tests conducted in the UB Virtual Reality Lab, the researchers have used the technology to sculpt and then design a prototype car hood, for example.

"This technology will give product designers, or even artists, a tool that will allow them to touch, shape and manipulate virtual objects just as they would with actual clay models or sculptures," says Thenkurussi Kesavadas, director of the UB Virtual Reality Lab and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Currently the ModelGlove is equipped with a single touch sensor on the tip of the index finger. On the computer display, the user's finger appears as one of three virtual tools: a sharp tool for making small deep holes, a medium size for gauging or molding the clay, and a large-diameter tool for rough shaping of surfaces.

The next generation of the ModelGlove will have sensors on all fingers and on the palm of the hand to give users full finger control of virtual clay. This will enable users to perform complex touch actions-such as kneading the ball of clay-in the virtual environment, according to Kesavadas.

For more on the ModelGlove contact the University of Buffalo at www.buffalo.edu or call 716-645-5000 ext. 1409.