Role of indentation depth and contact area on human perception of softness for haptic interfaces

In engineering, the “softness” of an object, as measured by an indenter, manifests as two measurable parameters: (i) indentation depth and (ii) contact area. For humans, softness is not well defined, although it is believed that perception depends on the same two parameters. Decoupling their relative contributions, however, has not been straightforward because most bulk—“off-the-shelf”—materials exhibit the same ratio between the indentation depth and contact area. Here, we decoupled indentation depth and contact area by fabricating elastomeric slabs with precise thicknesses and microstructured surfaces. Human subject experiments using two-alternative forced-choice and magnitude estimation tests showed that the indentation depth and contact area contributed independently to perceived softness. We found an explicit relationship between the perceived softness of an object and its geometric properties. Using this approach, it is possible to design objects for human interaction with a desired level of perceived softness. In the engineering sciences, “softness” is associated with deformability. A material is determined to be soft due to some combination of low elastic modulus, low st...

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