Many applications in teleoperation and virtual reality call for the implementation of effective means of displaying to the human operator information on the softness and other mechanical properties of objects being touched. The ability of humans to detect softness of different objects by tactual exploration is intimately related to both kinesthetic and cutaneous perception, and haptic displays should be designed so as to address such multimodal perceptual channel. Unfortunately, accurate detection and replication of cutaneous information in all its details appears to be a formidable task for current technology, causing most of today's haptic displays to merely address the kinesthetic part of haptic information. In this paper, we investigate the possibility of surrogating detailed tactile information for softness discrimination, with information on the rate of spread of the contact area between the finger and the specimen as the contact force increases. Devices for implementing such a perceptual channel are described, and a practical application to a mini-invasive surgery tool is presented. Psychophysical test results are reported, validating the effectiveness and practicality of the proposed approach.
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