Haptic Technology And eLearning

Haptic Technology And eLearning
Summary: Haptics, from the Greek word "haptesthai" pertains to the sense of touch. Computer-based haptic technology recreates the sense of touch by applying forces or vibrations to the user's tactile system.

Tactile Systems In Education: Haptic Technology And eLearning

Advances in technology are rapidly increasing the feasibility of haptics in eLearning interfaces.

Touch Is Real. What Is Touch?

From a very early age, we explore the world around us using touch. Before we learn to walk, we crawl on the floor exploring the objects and surfaces around us. Everything we see around us requires touch to confirm its existence, hence the tactile sense is a well-known and often overseen communication channel. We feel the objects' properties, we weight things, and we even (unconsciously) know the position and orientation of our body using the tactile and kinesthetic sense. We become conscious of the tactile sense only when we lose the visual one, either through visual impairment, or simply traveling through an environment where the visual sense is reduced.

A basic categorization of the human tactile systems is:

  • Kinesthetic (force) feedback
    It is perceived by sensory organs in the muscles and ligaments that are sensitive to forces acting on our musculoskeletal system. These are called proprioceptors and are stretch sensors, embedded in the ligaments and muscles, helping us perceive the position of different parts of our body.
  • Cutaneous (tactile, vibrotactile and thermal) feedback
    It is perceived by sensory organs in our skin. These are specialized sensors in the skin called thermoreceptors for heat and cold, nociceptors for pain, and mechanoreceptors for pressure [1].

Haptic Technology

Computer-based haptic technology recreates the sense of touch by applying forces or vibrations to the user's tactile or kinesthetic system. Since the tactile sense is the only sense with sensors spread around our entire body, a myriad of haptic devices, configurations and designs have been proposed with specific characteristics (e.g. degrees of freedom, working volume, maximum forces, maximum stiffness etc.) [2]. We can broadly categorize haptic devices in:

  • Vibro-tactile haptic interfaces, usually simulating cutaneous force actions through vibrations (a common device is your phone set on vibration mode, informing you of an incoming call) and,
  • Force feedback systems that employ servomotors to restrict the user's hand and/or fingers to convey the touch sensation. Such devices allow the addition of tactile perception to computer-generated (virtual) objects, complementing our visual communication channel.

Haptics And eLearning

Thus far, haptic technology has been heavily explored in the medical training industry with many applications targeting medical procedure training [3, 4] (e.g. minimally-invasive surgical training, robot-guided surgery, needle insertion, dentistry), rehabilitation (e.g. motor skills re-training) and the gaming industry to improve the User Experience through the application's realism. Advances in haptic technology over the last decade, as well as the price declines, are rapidly increasing the feasibility of haptics in eLearning interfaces, especially in the fields and subjects that require an understanding of abstract concepts involving complex forces [5].

Haptic interfaces are usually deployed in conjunction with a visual interface and can take advantage of specific Web3D standards like X3D [6] to explore the full potential of web-based 3D graphics. While the large-scale integration with Learning Management Systems has not been achieved yet, visual-haptic interfaces have been proposed and assessed in a variety of fields like:

  • Physics for the illustration of difficult and abstract concepts like hydraulics laws [7], facilitating students understanding of fundamental principles while keeping them actively involved in the learning process. Complex forces like precession [8], and concepts like static vs kinetic friction coefficients [9], as well as difficult to illustrate electromagnetism concepts (e.g. the forces acting on electrons as they pass through electromagnetic fields [10]).
  • Chemistry visuo-haptic interfaces for the simulation of forces at a molecular level [11] for a better illustration of the intermolecular interactions and atoms behavior.
  • Biology through modeling forces in biological structures and nano-manipulation [12] that enables a better understanding of cell biology and related phenomena.
  • Engineering can specifically benefit from tactile interfaces due to a large number of forces and interaction that occur in such systems (e.g. forces in complex mechanical systems like pulley systems and inertia [13]).
  • Last but not least, learning History and Culture can benefit from enabling interaction with ancient artifacts [14] in virtual museums.

While haptic simulations have not been mass deployed yet, the potential is growing fast. The wide adoption of web-based Learning Management Systems and the spread of inexpensive haptic devices into households due to gaming, is shaping this forthcoming industry. In the very near future, we shall see the tactile sense take its place near the visual and auditory senses in multimodal, intelligent User Interfaces deployed within the next generation eLearning systems.


  1. F. McGlone, D. Reilly  (2010) “The cutaneous sensory system” Neuroscience and Bio-behavioral Reviews 34 (2010) 148–159.
  2. S. Clapan and F. G. Hamza-Lup (2008) “Simulation and Training with Haptic Feedback—A Review,” 3rd International Conference on Virtual Learning (ICVL), 31 October – 2 November, Constanta, Romania.
  3. F. G. Hamza-Lup, C. M. Bogdan, D. M. Popovici, and O. D. Costea (2011) “A Survey of Visuo-Haptic Simulation in Surgical Training,” International Conference on Mobile, Hybrid, and On-line Learning, 22–28 February, Gosier, Guadeloupe, France.
  4. F. G. Hamza-Lup, D. M. Popovici, and C. Bogdan (2013) “Haptic Feedback Systems in Medical Education,” Journal of Advanced Distributed Learning Technology, Vol. 1(2), pp. 7–16.
  5. F. G. Hamza-Lup and I. A. Stanescu (2010) “The Haptic Paradigm in Education: Challenges and Case Studies,” The Internet and Higher Education Journal, Vol. 13(1), pp. 78–81 (ISSN 1096-7516).
  6. X3DOM (2018) “What is X3DOM, and what can it do for me?” https://doc.x3dom.org/gettingStarted/background/index.html. Accessed Oct.5, 2108.
  7. F. G. Hamza-Lup and M. Adams (2008) “Feel the Pressure: e-Learning System with Haptic Feedback,” 16th Symposium on Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environments and Teleoperator Systems, 13–14 March, Reno, Nevada
  8. F. G. Hamza-Lup and F. A. Kocadag (2013) “Simulating Forces. Learning Through Touch, Virtual Laboratories,” International Conference on Mobile, Hybrid, and On-line Learning, 26 February – 1 March, Nice, France, pp 55-58
  9. F. G. Hamza-Lup and W. H. Baird (2012) “Feel the Static and Kinetic Friction,” EuroHaptics 2012, Part I, LNCS 7282, pp 181 192, 12–15 June, Tampere, Finland.
  10. F. G. Hamza-Lup (2018) “Haptic Games for Abstract Concepts Understanding—Grabbing Charged Particles,” IEEE Transactions on Haptics Journal.
  11. S. Comai, D. Mazza (2010) A Haptic-Based Framework for Chemistry Education: Experiencing Molecular Interactions with Touch. In: Lytras M.D. et al. (eds) Technology Enhanced Learning. Quality of Teaching and Educational Reform. TECH-EDUCATION 2010. Communications in Computer and Information Science, Vol. 73. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  12. G. Sankaranarayanan, S. Weghorst, M. Sanner, A. Gillet and A. Olson, "Role of haptics in teaching structural molecular biology," 11th Symposium on Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environment and Teleoperator Systems, 2003. HAPTICS 2003. Proceedings. Los Angeles, CA, USA, 2003, pp. 363-366.
  13. L. Neri, J. Noguez,  V. Robledo-Rella, D. Escobar-Castillejos,  and A. Gonzalez-Nucamendi  (2018). Teaching Classical Mechanics Concepts using Visuo-haptic Simulators. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 21(2), 85-97. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26388381.
  14. P. Koutsabasis and S. Vosinakis. Virtual Reality (2018) 22: 103. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10055-017-0325-0.