First transatlantic handshake shows off Internet2

Experimenters in the US and UK reach out and touch each other through the next generation of human interfaces and the Internet

Two scientists on opposite sides of the Atlantic exchanged a physical handshake on Tuesday.

Using touch-relaying haptic technology, researchers in University College London shook hands with teammates in the Touch Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. They then cooperated in moving a cube around a visual virtual environment, coordinating by sense of touch across more than 3000 miles through Internet2 -- the experimental high speed system being used to develop the next generation of global networking.

They are now due to link up to Los Angeles, where the Fall 2002 Internet2 conference is under way. "We're seeing if adding touch makes a virtual environment more real to the user," said project researcher Joel Jordan.

The handshake went through a Phantom -- a device that combines robotic and force-sensing technology to detect the feel of a surface by the way it reacts to a probe. The vibrations set up in this way are digitised and transmitted over the Internet to another hand-held object, which is made to vibrate in sympathy to the original probe. "You can not only feel the resulting force, but you can also get a sense of the quality of the object you're feeling -- whether it's soft or hard, wood-like or fleshy said Mel Slater, Professor of Computer Science at University College London (UCL) and one of the leaders of the research effort.

Because the sense of touch is so immediate, any delay in the transmission of more than a hundred or so milliseconds ruins the effect, and ordinarily the Internet would not be able to guarantee that sort of response. Internet2 runs the IPv6 protocol, which among other aims is designed to ensure response times, while the link between UCL and the US runs at 10Mbps, or the speed of a normal office network.

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