Friction sensing mechanisms for perception and motor control: passive touch without sliding may not provide perceivable frictional information

Heba Khamis, Hafiz Malik Naqash Afzal, Jennifer Sanchez, Richard Vickery, Michaël Wiertlewski, Stephen J. Redmond, Ingvars Birznieks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Perception of the frictional properties of a surface contributes to the multidimensional experience of exploring various materials; we slide our fingers over a surface to feel it. In contrast, during object manipulation, we grip objects without such intended exploratory movements. Given that we are aware of the slipperiness of objects or tools that are held in the hand, we investigated whether the initial contact between the fingertip skin and the surface of the object is sufficient to provide this consciously perceived frictional information. Using a two-alternative forced-choice protocol, we examined human capacity to detect frictional differences using touch, when two otherwise structurally identical surfaces were brought in contact with the immobilized finger perpendicularly or under an angle (20° or 30°) to the skin surface (passive touch). An ultrasonic friction reduction device was used to generate three different frictions over each of three flat surfaces with different surface structure: 1) smooth glass, 2) textured surface with dome-shaped features, and 3) surface with sharp asperities (sandpaper). Participants (n = 12) could not reliably indicate which of the two surfaces was more slippery under any of these conditions. In contrast, when slip was induced by moving the surface laterally by a total of 5 mm (passive slip), participants could clearly perceive frictional differences. Thus making contact with the surface, even with moderate tangential forces, was not enough to perceive frictional differences, instead conscious perception required a sufficient size slip.NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study contributes to understanding how frictional information is obtained and used by the brain. When the skin is contacting surfaces of identical topography but varying frictional properties, the deformation pattern is different; however, available sensory cues did not get translated into perception of frictional properties unless a sufficiently large lateral movement was present. These neurophysiological findings may inform how to design and operate haptic devices relying on friction modulation principles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)809-823
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • dexterity
  • friction
  • haptics
  • perception
  • tactile afferents


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