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UF professor’s project allows people to feel the moon’s pull

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Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012 1:45 am

Feeling the moon’s gravitational pull or bonds between water molecules is now within grasp — literally.

By combining haptics and nanotechnology, the Digital Worlds Institute in collaboration with Curtis Taylor, a UF professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a nanotechnology expert, has made it possible for people to feel these reactions.

The project, called HAPNAN, was showcased Thursday night at the Harn Museum’s “Art in Engineering” event.

Haptics refers to the ability to feel a force or texture in a virtual environment, according to an email from James Oliverio, director of the Digital Worlds Institute. Nanotechnology refers to research, development and manufacturing activity with matter and processes that are too small for the eye to see, he said.

Oliverio said he, Taylor and Digital Worlds’ graduate students worked on the project and hope to use the technology to enhance learning in middle school classrooms.

Oliverio likened HAPNAN to a “serious video game.” For example, students can use the mouse to pull a cowbell-shaped object off the moon’s surface and then pull the same object off the Earth’s surface, in order to compare the planets’ gravitational pulls.

Patrick Terry, a 20-year-old materials science and engineering junior, said he thinks the technology has potential to help students make sense of ideas he learned from textbooks.

“Trying to find a new way to get people to understand things is always great,” Terry said. “I can imagine that it definitely has potential to be a helpful medium to learn those concepts.”

Oliverio said the project will initially be implemented in local schools, but because the National Science Foundation funded the prototype development, HAPNAN should eventually make a national impact.

“Humans can often learn more in a multimodal context than a single mode like reading alone,” Oliverio said. “When more than one sense is involved in the acquisition of knowledge, we can learn more deeply.”

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