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NASA to develop haptic air-typing spacesuit gloves

Touch screens over before they began?

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NASA is considering plans to integrate haptic vibro feedback and Halting State style air-writing accelerometer capability into spacesuit gloves.

The news came this week as the space agency announced candidates selected for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) pork handouts. Among the successful applicants was Virginia firm Barron Associates, presenting an idea for a "Tactile Data Entry System".

According to Barron's Richard Adams, the plan would be to build "a small vibrating element" into spacesuit gloves "to create a surrogate for the tactile sense lost behind the insulating and protective layers". He goes on:

This vibrotactile display will stimulate the neuro-receptors in the user's fingertips, with various waveforms, or "tactors," conveying sensations such as impact or surface roughness. By restoring the sense of touch to gloved crewmembers, the system will demonstrate increased performance and reduced user fatigue.

But the system wouldn't just be about restoring fine touch to the astronaut's fingertips. There would be motion sensing too, potentially for each individual fingertip rather than just the hand. Combined with a projection display on the helmet visor, this might allow a suited-up space ace to type away on a virtual keyboard hanging in the air in front of him or her - and feel the keystrokes.

According to Adams:

The proposed technology enables user interfaces that are adaptable to a wide range of tasks, including surface navigation, document editing, communications, and telerobotic control.

It's questionable whether accelerometers - certainly ones of a size to be mounted unobtrusively on a glove fingertip - could be accurate enough, but the Barron SBIR application also mentions "integration of infrared tracking". Reflective infrared dots tracked by cameras are often used for such tasks as mapping a person's movement, so it could be that an astronaut's helmet would see where his or her fingertips were using this method.

Needless to say, all or most of this tech would be equally applicable down on the ground. If NASA moves forward with the super spacesuit interface tech, it just might be that we'll all find ourselves in future pulling on a set of air-typing gloves and flipping down our vid-specs rather than sitting down and balancing our laptops on our knees or fondling away at our tablets. ®

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