Haptic Computer Interface

Thomas H. Massie of Vanceboro, Kentucky had many inventions to his credit as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The most impressive was a computer interface system that takes virtual reality to a new level.

Unlike most virtual reality systems, which allow a person to see, move through, and react to computer-simulated items or environments, Massie's interface system, which he calls the PHANToM, is actually haptic (from the Greek "hapt-esthai," which means "to touch" or "to feel"). Massie's interface has unique, pivoting thimble-like receptacles mounted at the ends of computerized arms, into which a person can insert their fingers and then virtually "feel" the shape, texture, and weight of objects on the computer screen, as well as virtually "manipulate" and otherwise interact with those objects.

The possible applications of such an apparatus do not end with more realistic video games. The PHANToM could be used to allow engineers and designers to probe the physical qualities of their creations while these are still "on the drawing board." Massie's system could also be used to train or prepare doctors for surgery, by acquainting them with the nature of various types of body-tissue before a procedure is actually performed.

To market the PHANToM, Massie founded a company named SensAble Technologies that he later sold.  He is credited with many other inventions, ranging from the robotic arm that he built in the seventh grade to an automatic plant-watering system that reacts to the plant's soil to a weaving machine that mimics the handicraft of natives of the Andes Mountains.

For his inventive spirit and for encouraging young people to realize that there are real benefits "for doing something that is so much fun and so rewarding in itself," Thomas Massie was awarded the 1995 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Massie turned his inventive path into a political one, serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Kentucky’s 4th district since 2012.