Technology & ProductsForce Feedback Technology
Artificial "Reality" presents in real daily life
The expression "virtual reality" is often heard in the world of networks and computer games (*1). It refers to using a computer to create an artificial reality that acts on our senses. Up to now, computer graphics (CG) and sound effects have mainly worked with the senses of sight and hearing, but currently a great deal of attention is being given to adding functions that are operated using our sense of touch.
The world that we perceive as being real is made up of signals sent to our brain via our sensory organs (for sight, hearing, touch, etc.). But how do we know that what the brain perceives is indeed reality? Or is it an illusion? Numerous movies and works of science fiction have appeared with "virtual reality" as their theme.
But now, "virtual reality" is no longer just the stuff of movies and books; it is happening all around us.
(*1) Virtual doesn’t necessarily mean imaginary, simulated.
The technical term "virtual reality" was introduced by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1987 with the development of a project known as Virtual Environment Workstation (VIEW). Since then it has become the generic term for the technology of creating a realistic environment in a computer system and has also been accepted into the English language. The Virtual Reality Society of Japan defines virtual as something that has no tangible substance but reacts in the same way as if it were tangible.
Force feedback technology: technology that stimulates tactile sense
A lot of attention is paid now to the car environmental performance in terms of fuel alternatives to gasoline.
In addition to running performance, a car’s safety, comfort and environmental performance are also areas that come under close scrutiny. The increasing use of automotive electronics holds the key to enhancing capabilities in these areas.
A wide array of electronic controls is already installed in car interiors. There are systems to increase safety and a diverse range of functions conceived to provide comfort. Innovative functions are being added as information systems (*2) evolve and the march of in-car IT continues unabated.
However, the reverse side of the increasing number of functions is the proliferation of switches needed inside the car., adding to the complexity of the operations carried out by the driver. Moreover, apart from the driving, safety will inevitably be jeopardized if the driver has to visually check the status of the interior controls more frequently.
"Can’t a single multi-function switch be used to reduce the number of switches?"
"Isn’t there a way for the driver to check the functions without having to do a visual check?"
To solve these problems Alps Electric turned to Force feedback technology, which makes use of human senses; Using this technology to generate a synthetic sense of touch, we have developed a device, the Haptic Commander™, which is touch-operated.
(*2) Information signals from the road
The Intelligent Transport System (ITS) is an integrated information network that uses the latest information technology to link people, roads and vehicles. The objective of the new system is to manage the effects of traffic accidents, congestion and other road traffic problems. The VICS road traffic information system, and ETC are part of ITS.
Force feedback technology: creating a sense of touch for drivers.
Our sense of touch can perceive 1,000 separate pressure changes per second. It is said that the human finger can recognize and differentiate innumerable sensations. "So if we could load several functions onto one control knob, and if each function could be allocated a different operating feel (function A = feel A; function B = feel B), the driver would be able to tell the functions apart just from the way they feel to the touch." It was from this idea that the Haptic Commander™ was born.
Force feedback technology involves artificially creating a range of operating feel settings. On one control knob, each function (audio, navigation system, air-conditioning, etc.) has a different operating feel set for each function. The ability to operate several functions from one control knob has reduced the number of control switches needed. At the same time, freeing the driver to check the status of controls by touch negates the need for visual checks.
In the operating principle behind the Haptic Commander™, a software-controlled internal motor is used to create the operating feel (reaction force). Firstly, position sensors detect movement as the control knob is manipulated along its X-Y axes. A central processing unit (CPU) senses which operating feedback to apply to which function (audio, navigation, air-conditioning, etc.), from the movement of the knob. Calculating the reaction force when the control knob is operated, the CPU issues a command to the motor and the appropriate tactile stimulus is applied. The Haptic Commander™ can, in principle, produce any stimulus that our sense of touch is capable of perceiving in our everyday lives.
Tactile sense creation principle of Haptic Commander™
Indispensible technology for cars of future
Electronic control of car running functions (gears, brakes, steering) using X-by-Wire technology (*3) is going to become a major theme in automotive electronics. Until now, cars have been driven based on mechanical principles. Instead of mechanics and hydraulics, X-by-Wire uses full electronics to control all aspects of car running.
There are, however, problems with electronically operated control systems. Since operating information is transmitted as an electronic signal, there is obviously no mechanically driven reaction force. The operator (the driver) loses the information provided by the "feel" of the car’s condition or performance, or the road surface. For example if the brakes were pressed with no reaction force, there would be no sensation that the brakes were working. Or if there is no "feel" when changing gears on a difficult road, the shift would not be noticed. Depriving drivers of these sensations in such situations would also remove the ability to anticipate danger, with obvious consequences.
Focusing on compensating for this loss of information, Force feedback technology creates a synthetic reaction force (force feedback function) to convey information to the driver. Force feedback is thus an indispensible technology in the use of X-by-Wire.
In applying the force feedback function to the Haptic Commander™, Alps has created an independent system which uses X-by-Wire to communicate the necessary information in the form of feel to the driver.
(*3) In the air and on the road with By-Wire
X-by-Wire began as “Fly-by-Wire.” Fly-by-Wire is an electronic flight control system for aircraft. Its computer-based system makes operations ever simpler and safer. Fly-by-Wire was introduced by Airbus in 1988, and was then adapted for cars as the Drive-By-Wire system.
Visions of virtual reality future reality
Virtual Reality has broken out of the world of movies and science fiction and started to permeate our everyday lives. The expectations are that it will be used not just in recreation, but in medical, care giving, science and technology as well as a variety of other fields.
If you want an up-close experience of virtual reality, just get in a car. Then as you drive the car, concentrate on the sensations in your hands, fingers and feet as you operate the controls. This is already a synthetic sensation, a "virtual reality" if you will.