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Stanford-designed Hapkit brings physical touch to the virtual classroom

National Science Foundation grant allows Stanford Engineering team to experiment with a way to combine online learning with hands-on experience.

Stanford educators have designed a do-it-yourself kit that gives online learners hands-on experience by bringing haptics into virtual classrooms.

Haptics refers to the sense of touch. The hands-on teaching tool is called Hapkit.

Hapkit has a sensor, motor and controller board that can be programmed using a personal computer. Learners can program Hapkit to produce specific sensations. For instance a user should be able to touch the device and feel what it’s like to run his or her hand against a wall or click a ballpoint pen.

“Haptic technology tries to make virtual experiences seem more real in order to improve how people perform tasks or enjoy virtual experiences,” said Allison Okamura, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Okamura designed Hapkit in collaboration with Paulo Blikstein, a professor of education, and Tania Morimoto, a third-year PhD student in mechanical engineering.

In fall 2013, Okamura used Hapkit in an online teaching experiment. She offered a free online course, “Introduction to Haptics.” She limited enrollment to 100 applicants who lived in the United States. Okamura sent each successful applicant a Hapkit to use in conjunction with the course.

Adding this hands-on component helped: 77 percent of the participants finished the course with a passing grade. The students said that constructing the device helped them learn.

Associate Professor Allison Okamura is using a build-it-yourself-electronic kit that allow students to create physical sensations using a programmable device called Hapkit. (Video: Vignesh Ramachadran)

Building on that experience, Okamura recently teamed with Blikstein and a third collaborator, Karon MacLean, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, to obtain a National Science Foundation grant.

Together these educators will study how best to use haptic technology to improve how teachers teach and participants learn.

Hapkit as a teaching tool

Okamura uses Hapkit when she teaches on campus to her Stanford students.

She also offers a self-paced version of her haptics class free to anyone in the world through a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. No programming background is needed. The online course is aimed at participants ranging from high school age (an introductory physics class would be helpful) to working professionals.

Online learners have all the information needed to build a Hapkit. Okamura estimates that it would cost $50-$100 to acquire the parts and assemble a kit.

Haptics, then and now

Okamura’s research in haptics is coming full circle. A Stanford mechanical engineering grad, she earned her MS here in 1996 and her PhD in 2000. That same year she joined the mechanical engineering faculty at Johns Hopkins University before returning to The Farm in 2011.

Today her CHARM Lab – short for Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine – designs haptic interfaces. For instance, a surgeon teleoperating a surgical robot to perform a delicate task such as suturing in tissue should be able to “feel” what the robot is doing and what sort of forces are being applied.

Haptic feedback helps humans and other animals solve real-world problems, said Mark Cutkosky, Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and a pioneer in applying the science to educational settings and interactions with machines.

“In our daily lives, we don’t even think about it; most of it’s unconscious,” Cutkosky said. “Haptics, or the sense of touch, is how we discover that things are hard or soft or slippery or hot or cold or smooth.”

Cutkosky was Okamura’s mentor when she was a Stanford doctoral student in the 1990s. They worked together to develop the “haptic paddle,” a device designed to give Stanford students a feel for virtual environments using the technology that was available at the time.

Once Okamura returned to Stanford and assembled her own team at the CHARM Lab, she enlisted PhD student Morimoto to redesign the original haptic paddle to incorporate new, low-cost and easy-to-use electronic components.

The contemporary Hapkit is produced by laser cutting or 3D printing and is compatible with inexpensive hobby-type microcontrollers such as the Arduino, making it easier to program and customize.

Morimoto said the CHARM Lab's latest Hapkit design is 3D printed. This makes it possible for people to download some files and print their own Hapkit, creating a bigger community around the device and spurring new ideas.

“Once we do get this out there more and other people have access to it, what will they come up with?” Morimoto asked. “What design changes do they make?”

Haptics in classrooms, real and virtual

While these plans percolate, Okamura and her collaborators are developing other partnerships to experiment with ways to use hands-on training tools to improve learning outcomes. In one such project, Okamura is working with Agnes Kaiser, a chemical-engineer-turned-math-teacher at Isaac Newton Graham Middle School in Mountain View, Calif.

Kaiser spent her summer in the CHARM Lab figuring out how to adapt the college-level Introduction to Haptics course to her middle school students. Because her students have grown up using smartphones and touchscreen devices, Kaiser reasoned that they would have a natural affinity for haptics. But as an educator she wanted them to learn the math behind such technologies.

This spring Kaiser plans to teach her middle school students the concepts and equations behind haptics. Her students will use Hapkit to understand the workings of a Sleep Number ™ bed and learn what it means, mathematically, to dial in a firm or soft mattress.

“Once the students get that connection, their retention is more meaningful and more powerful,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser’s teaching experiment will be another data point in Okamura’s larger quest to understand how hands-on experiences can enhance learning. For the time being, she is focused on using haptics technology to teach the science of haptics.

But she believes that the technology could be used to simulate any physical environment and thus reinforce any learning experience, be it in a traditional class or an online class. In a physics course, for example, learners might interact with springs and dampers, while in a biology class they could experience the virtual dissection of a frog. “What we really want to understand is how interacting with these haptic devices could help education across a broad variety of topics,” Okamura said.

Media Contact

Tom Abate, Associate Director of Communications, Stanford Engineering, 650-736-2245,

Thursday, January 29, 2015