Inventor of the Week Archive
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Haptic Computer Interface
MIT graduate, Thomas H. Massie, of Vanceboro, Kentucky, has many inventions to his credit, the most impressive being a computer interface system that takes virtual reality to a new level.
Unlike most virtual reality systems, which allow a person to see, move through, and react to computer-simulated items or environments, Massie's interface system, which he calls the PHANToM, is actually haptic (from the Greek "hapt-esthai," which means "to touch" or "to feel"). Massie's interface has unique, pivoting thimble-like receptacles mounted at the ends of computerized arms, into which a person can insert their fingers and then virtually "feel" the shape, texture and weight of objects on the computer screen---as well as virtually "manipulate" and otherwise interact with those objects
The possible applications of such an apparatus do not end with more realistic video games. The PHANToM could be used to allow engineers and designers to probe the physical qualities of their creations while these are still "on the drawing board." Massie's system could also be used to train or prepare doctors for surgery, by acquainting them with the nature of various types of body-tissue before a procedure is actually performed.
To market the PHANToM, Massie founded a company, SensAble Technologies; but he has many other inventions to his credit. These range from the robotic arm that he built in the seventh grade, to an automatic plant-watering system that reacts to the plant's soil, to a weaving machine that mimics the handicraft of natives of the Andes Mountains.
For his inventive spirit, and for encouraging young people to realize that there are real benefits "for doing something that is so much fun and so rewarding in itself," Thomas Massie was awarded the 1995 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. He has applied the $30,000 prize money both to his own work and to sponsoring math and science activities at his hometown high school.