American and British computer scientists have announced a breakthrough that allows physical sensation to be felt through the Internet in what is known as computer-generated "virtual reality."
In "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," Paul McCartney sang about "hands across the water," and now, decades later, that image became a virtual reality this week, with scientists from the United States and Britain using the Internet for what they describe as a "trans-Atlantic handshake."
The new technology allows researchers sitting an ocean apart to use robotic handles to feel each other's manipulation of a small box on a computer screen.
Joel Jordan is pursuing a doctorate degree in computer science at University College London, where he participated in the experiment. Across the Atlantic, a student named Jung Kim sat at a computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, outside Boston.
"We have a virtual room set up with a cube inside," explained Mr. Jordan. "And we will see his cursor moving around inside, in 3-D basically, as we move around ours. And then together we will be able to push against the cube, on opposite sides in an upward direction to try to lift it together."
Mr. Jordan says scientists are considering various practical applications for the new technology, particularly in the training of medical students. "They certainly are already looking at using this for surgery so that they can actually train with virtual bodies, so you can feel around a body, which does not really exist," he explained. "Of course, with the Internet capability as well, then you can have experts from around the world who might not be able to get over, perhaps into your country, to help you train, but of course they can help you from wherever they are."
In other applications, artists around the world could use the technology to collaborate on a virtual sculpture.
And without connecting to the Internet, the French army is teaching soldiers how to clear land mines by practicing on touch feedback computers.
But it will be some time before ordinary computer users will be able to reach out and touch someone through the Internet. First there is the cost. The robotic stylus that passes on the touch sensations costs $20,000.
And the long-distance touch experiments are now restricted to the high-speed Internet2 which is accessible only to academic researchers.