Haptics: giving VR the finger (part 1)

Ed Higgins III. No Se No Photo by Toyo used with permission

Rethink the body for a moment. The skin; the largest organ. The wondrous organs and processes within this sack of flesh, especially the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems. With everything working together, we can do things like jump, speak and button our clothes.

Zooming in on the act of buttoning a shirt, we see a number of interactions. The brain controls muscles related to the eyes, arms and hands. Information about texture and positioning is exchanged between brain and fingers. Muscles and tendons make movements, some obvious, some extremely subtle. Fingertips maneuver the object. Voila! The shirt is buttoned. All parts of the buttoning operation are important. However, from the viewpoint of haptics, the three nerves connected to the fingers deserve a closer look.

The median nerve controls the thumb and wrist. It also gives feeling to the skin around the palm, thumb, middle and index fingers. It runs down the inside of the arm, crosses the front of the elbow and passes through the wrist bones and connective tissue of the carpal tunnel. Compressing the median nerve over a long period can result in carpal tunnel syndrome.

Another nerve, the ulnar nerve, is connected to the muscles that bend the wrist and fingers. It passes behind the elbow. When someone says, “I hit my funny bone”, the correct reply is, “what you are actually saying is that you’ve unexpectedly stimulated your ulnar nerve, resulting in that unusual, wacky tingling sensation”.

Spock rockin’ that ulnar nerve/ flexor digitalis superficialis action.

Finally, the radial nerve, which straightens the wrist, thumb and fingers. It gives feeling to the skin on the back of the hand, as well as the index finger, middle finger, and half of the ring finger. Considered by many to be the second most important nerve in the body, the radial nerve is also responsible for bending the elbow.

My interest in haptics is not yet linked to any projects, commercial or artistic. This series of haptics-related blog posts is open-ended, but, the following topics seem likely to follow, in this order: nerve endings, sensors, and haptic-related products. I am especially interested in the intersection of haptics and music. I hope to also again speak with Stelarc about his possible haptics-related projects. I was fortunate to document some of his third hand projects, as well as chat with his prosthetic head. FWIW, I have only knowingly photobombed once:

Stephen Black’s first and only photobomb.Stelarc, Uerich Lau, Steve Dixon and ? LASALLE College of the Arts

Black and white photo courtesy of Toyo Tsuchiya, from his No Se No documentation project.

Part two of this series is here.