Kuchenbecker built her career on making things feel real. Her dream is to help make haptics, the science of incorporating touch into human-computer interaction, as convincing as photography. At the moment, however, the field is still immature. With even the best available haptic interfaces (like the Phantom system by SensAble, through which users can "touch" virtual objects), "everything feels soft and squishy," she says. "We call it Nerf World." To better match haptic feedback to reality's sharp edges, Kuchenbecker captures tactile information using a tool outfitted with accelerometers and other sensors. As the tool crosses a surface, it records the forces encountered. She then creates a mathematical model of the interaction
and re-creates that interaction in a consumer product. Rather than a blunted set of Nerf-like sensations, the process gives rise to a deep tactile vocabulary.