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Scientists try for a touchy-feely Net

CNET News.com

Scientists in Britain and the United States will try to shake hands on Tuesday. No big deal one might think — only they will be 5,000 kilometres apart, using the Internet to connect them.

In a technological first, they will use pencil-like devices called phantoms to recreate the sense of touch across the Atlantic, organizers of the experiment said.

The phantoms send small impulses at very high frequencies down the Internet using newly developed fibre-optic cables and extremely high bandwidths.

When a scientist in London prods a screen with the phantom, the sensation should be felt by a colleague in Boston, and vice versa.

"Pushing on the pen sends data representing forces through the Internet that can be interpreted by a phantom and therefore felt on the other end," said Mel Slater, Professor of Computer Science at University College London (UCL).

"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, woodlike or fleshy."

UCL will conduct the experiment on Tuesday with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two scientists — one in London and one in Boston — will try to pick up a cube between them and move it, each responding to the force the other exerts on it.

The secret behind the technology is the speed at which the successive impulses are sent — up to 1,000 Hertz," UCL said in a statement.

"In much the same way that the brain re-interprets still images into moving pictures, the frequencies received by the phantom are similarly integrated to produce the sense of a continuous sensation," it said.

The implications of the experiment could be vast, said UCL, which describes the event as the world's "first transatlantic handshake over the Internet."

If successful, it could allow people to touch and feel each other over the Internet.

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