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HomeSoftware EngineeringHaptics in Healthcare: An Alternative for Designers

Haptics in Healthcare: An Alternative for Designers

Touch is a critical component of medical care, from diagnosis to treatment. But it’s taken a backseat since the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a shift to telemedicine. The remote delivery of health-related services and information is about 40 times higher than it was pre-pandemic, according to a July 2021 report from McKinsey & Company.

Telemedicine connects doctors and patients through high-resolution photos and video, but it’s not able to provide physicians the ability to touch. Haptic technology, which creates the sensation of touch through pressure, vibration, sound, and motion graphics, is poised to change that. This market, estimated to grow at a compound annual rate of 12% by 2026, opens up huge opportunities for designers with haptic skills and experience.

Haptics in Healthcare

Haptics are part of extended reality, which also includes augmented reality, mixed reality, and virtual reality (VR). When you type a message on your cellphone and the alphabet keys vibrate slightly with each stroke—giving the sense that you’re pressing them as if on a keyboard—that’s haptics. Another example is in video games, when the controller rumbles as you knock into an obstacle.

“Clinicians are interested in using haptic technology in telemedicine. They want to be able to conduct exams remotely—such as to palpate a patient’s abdomen or conduct neurological exams,” says Laurel Riek, director of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at the University of California San Diego. Riek’s lab is developing telemedicine robots that can grasp objects, open doors, and execute other tasks to allow healthcare workers to perform remote physical exams.

Research suggests that integrating haptic feedback into virtual reality telemedicine consultations enhances clinical outcomes. Haptics can add helpful information to two-dimensional scan images, such as whether tissue is hard or soft. It can also provide lifelike simulations for surgeons, increase healthcare access for people with disabilities, and improve control of smart prostheses.

It’s clear that haptic technology in medicine has huge potential for improving care—provided that the applications are intuitive and user-friendly, so healthcare providers can quickly and easily adopt and use them. That’s where designers come in: By prioritizing the user experience, they can help ensure both the success of haptics in medicine, and better health for patients.

The Power of Touch: 3 Types of Haptics in Medicine

Current haptic technology falls into three categories: graspable, wearable, and touchable. Taken together, these technologies offer a variety of use cases in clinical settings.

Blue text reads, “Graspable.” Smaller, black text below it reads, “A device users can manipulate with their hands.” To the right of the text is an illustration of a video game controller.

A Merck project called “My Other Life” uses VR and graspable haptic technology to help healthcare providers better understand the experiences and challenges of people with multiple sclerosis. The sensory experience includes seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling—and graspable controllers have a vibration function that numbs users’ sense of touch.

A woman wears a headset and holds a controller in front of a backdrop that depicts a kitchen. Text overlaid on the backdrop reads, “My Other Life: A Sensory VR Experience.”
“My Other Life” is a sensory VR experience that enables healthcare providers to learn more about their patients’ daily lives with multiple sclerosis. Creativepool

Graspable devices can also be beneficial for training dentists, points out Roman Vlasov, a California-based software developer in the Toptal network who has experience building advanced medical imaging products. “Many off-the-shelf haptic devices are like a stylus attached to a robotic arm, so it naturally feels like a drill,” he explains. Indeed, some universities began using a haptic and VR dental simulator to train students remotely during the pandemic.

Gray text reads, “Wearable.” Smaller, black text below it reads, “A device users can put on.” To the right of the text is an illustration of a smartwatch on a wrist.

The second type of haptic tech is found in wearable devices, such as prosthetics, virtual reality gloves, and smartwatches. In a study published in 2021, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Drexel universities discovered that upper-body prosthetics enabled with haptic feedback better assisted the wearer in performing tasks by reducing the “mental effort” required to operate them. That’s because users of traditional prosthetics must spend a lot of time and energy monitoring their devices, ultimately leading some to abandon the prosthetics altogether. In essence, this is a UX issue that designers have the opportunity to help solve with the smart application of haptics.

“Our study provides strong evidence that haptic feedback is beneficial from both a cognitive and task performance perspective,” said Jeremy D. Brown, senior author of the resulting research report.

Another wearable device is haptic gloves, which are made by companies including Meta, HaptX, and SenseGlove Nova. The gloves use sensors and air pressure to give wearers the sensation of touch in virtual reality settings. The idea is that the user, who would be wearing a VR headset, could feel like they were actually touching and manipulating objects in the VR world. The technology is still nascent and primarily geared toward video gamers, but such a product could facilitate hyperrealistic training for the medical community in the future.

A man wearing a headset and VR gloves. A screen in front of him depicts virtual gloves that he is controlling.
Haptic gloves enable users to feel like they are manipulating objects in the VR world. Unsplash

Other haptic devices, such as smartwatches, provide the user with information and alerts via vibrations and pulses. Jamie Teresuk, a Toptal product and design director, notes that such devices have the potential to expand accessibility for patients, and the haptic feedback helps users who don’t have good hearing or eyesight to receive reminders–such as to take medication–in other ways.

The wellness industry can also benefit from wearable haptic tech, Teresuk adds. For example, she notes that the Apple Watch has a mindfulness app that reminds her to take moments to breathe or stand up, even guiding the breathing pace. “Haptic feedback can support that [feature],” she says.

By collecting data from the user, these wearable devices can also help healthcare practitioners do their jobs; for example, the information gathered could aid diagnoses and allow doctors to monitor patients’ conditions. The devices could also remind patients to take prescribed medication by vibrating on a schedule.

Green text reads, “Touchable.” Smaller black text below it reads, “Smart screens that give users the sensation of textures when touched.” To the right of the text is an illustration of a hand holding a phone that appears to have a textured surface.

The final kind of haptic technology we’ll cover aims to transform two-dimensional screens and images into textured, touchable surfaces. Touchable haptic devices might be particularly helpful in disciplines like oncology, where cancer experts located anywhere in the world could “feel” suspected tumors without the patient having to fly to the doctor’s locale (or vice versa). Gareth Monkman, a professor of electrical engineering at Regensburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, where he founded and directs the Mechatronics Research Unit, has worked on developing a “touchable” elastogram—a type of medical scan that shows the relative hardness or softness of underlying tissue.

“We decided to try and develop a system where you could press against the surface [of the elastogram] and it would be hard or soft in the same way a tumor is,” says Monkman. “So you could touch this display and it would feel like the tumor.” His team employed electrorheological fluids—fluids that, when subjected to a high voltage, become harder—to try to achieve such a tactile display.

Other use cases for this technology might be to detect kidney stones or determine the amount of cholesterol present in blood vessels, Monkman says. “There are very small probes you can send into blood vessels—an ultrasound probe. And then the surgeon could touch a display and feel as if his finger is actually in the blood vessel.” Such devices might enable virtual diagnoses or at least provide another data point for clinicians as they treat patients.

In another example, Level Ex created video games that allow physicians to practice surgical procedures. Instead of using physical forces or vibrations, the games trick the brain into sensing touch through hyperrealistic graphics.

“We can create the perception of force,” Level Ex CEO Sam Glassenberg says. “Most of your perception of how heavy something is, or how tensile something is, or how thick it is, or how elastic it is, is from your visual system. That’s literally what your iPhone operating system is doing. There are virtual springs running in your menus. Sometimes you pull on something, and it feels tight. Sometimes it feels very loose. It’s all simulated physics. It’s essentially haptics.”

For example, Level Ex’s game for gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons includes various simulations of colonoscopies. When the doctor “pulls” or “pinches” the virtual tissue, it reacts by stretching in a way that corresponds with the type and health of real tissue. An accidental nick will also trigger a realistic “bleed,” obscuring the surgeon’s view and creating the need for immediate treatment—much like what would happen with an actual patient.

“A lot of doctors end up learning on mannequins and cadavers,” explains Glassenberg, who notes that these practice subjects don’t behave the way a live person would. With virtual reality and haptics, we can create scenarios in which the “patient” actually does react realistically. “Really, where digital solutions offer the biggest benefits is going to be in things like decision making, visualization, and complex maneuvers.”

Haptics in Medicine: The Future of Care?

As with any new equipment, particularly in medicine, haptic technology faces challenges to widespread adoption. Regulatory bodies vary by country, and in addition to the complex legal hoops that manufacturers must jump through to acquire the necessary approvals, there are legitimate malpractice concerns that have yet to be fully studied.

There are other challenges, too. At this point most haptic-enabled equipment is large, unwieldy, nontransportable, and expensive. Vlasov notes that there is also the hurdle of network delays, which aren’t a big deal when you’re playing a video game or engaged in a simulation, but can be the difference between life and death in a real surgical situation.

Recruiting developers and designers to create these ultra-complex haptic medical devices can be difficult, Glassenberg acknowledges, because these talented individuals could easily enter the gaming market or the financial sector and make more money. To overcome that obstacle, Glassenberg appeals to their creative side: Medical training “games” are an excellent opportunity for designers to take the skills they’ve developed in gaming and “apply them toward an even more fulfilling cause: to help doctors improve their skills and help improve outcomes for patients,” he says.

Indeed, product designers have a crucial role as haptics innovate medical care. Applying fundamental principles for design to haptics in healthcare can ensure that providers and patients use new technologies and procedures to their fullest extent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered our attitudes toward and comfort with doing things virtually. It’s safe to assume that telemedicine will continue to grow, and with it, the interest in and need for designers with haptics skills. Fostering excellent haptic UX design means placing the experiences and needs of medical professionals and patients first when considering strategic, system, and process design decisions. This approach helps ensure that any medical services that use haptic technology are practical, efficient, and effective.



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