Stanford Offers Hands-On ‘Haptic’ Online Course


Online learning has a wealth of advantages, but Stanford University is getting a head start in making up for its shortcomings by creating courses that are literally “hands-on.”

Allison Okamura, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, has created a course that teaches students about haptic technology. Joe Pellicone writes that haptic technology is “a tactile feedback technology which takes advantage of the sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user.” (Gamers might be familiar with controllers that vibrate in response to certain in-game actions, which is an example of haptic technology.) Students who take the course are given the opportunity to make a programmable device, the Hapkit, to use in experiments.

According to Ronald Bethke, a doctoral student who helped on the project, Tania Morimoto, says:

MOOCs are becoming really big but are often missing that hands-on component. Professor Okamura realized that haptics would be a good way to add that element. People learn in different ways, and having something physical can really help them understand things.

The Hapkit consists of a sensor, a motor, and a controller board which can be programmed with a PC. Students can then touch the Hapkit and feel whatever sensations it was programmed to produce. For example, they can virtually touch a wall, squash a spring, or click a pen.

The Hapkit was developed with Paulo Bilkstein, an education professor, and Tania Morimoto, a mechanical engineering PhD student. As a doctoral student, Okamura and her mentor Mark Cutkosky designed a similar instrument, which they called the “haptic paddle.”

The newer incarnation incorporates developments that have been made since the haptic paddle was built 1990s, allowing students to assemble it themselves for less than $100. Its parts can be 3D-printed and can be used with hobby microcontrollers like Arduino. The ease of obtaining and using the device has created a vibrant community centered around the Hapkit.

The Hapkit found an audience in 2013, when Okamura created a free online course called “Introduction to Haptics” that accepted 100 U.S. students. Students said that the Hapkit helped them understand course content, and 77% passed. Now, Intro to Haptics is free for anyone who is interested, and Okamura, Bilkstein, and Karon MacLean (a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia) teamed up to get a National Science Foundation grant, according to Stanford News. Together, they’re studying how haptics can improve instruction and course participation.

Okamura says:

What we really want to understand is how interacting with these haptic devices could help education across a broad variety of topics. Once we do get this out there, more people have access to it; what will they come up with? What design changes do they make?

A Kickstarter project named the ARAIG (standing for “As Real As It Gets”) is a full-body suit containing 48 haptic sensors that allow a gamer to feel what happens in a game, like a bullet through the chest or rain on their head and shoulders. More practically, fields like telesurgery and robotics can put this technology to use.

The free course can be found at Stanford’s website.