Human thumb next to our OmniTact sensor, and a US penny for scale.
Touch has been shown to be important for dexterous manipulation in
robotics. Recently, the GelSight sensor has caught significant interest
for learning-based robotics due to its low cost and rich signal. For example,
GelSight sensors have been used for learning inserting USB cables (Li et al,
2014), rolling a die (Tian et al. 2019) or grasping objects (Calandra
et al. 2017).
The reason why learning-based methods work well with GelSight sensors is that
they output high-resolution tactile images from which a variety of features
such as object geometry, surface texture, normal and shear forces can be
estimated that often prove critical to robotic control. The tactile images
can be fed into standard CNN-based computer vision pipelines allowing the use
of a variety of different learning-based techniques: In Calandra et al.
2017 a grasp-success classifier is trained on GelSight data collected in
self-supervised manner, in Tian et al. 2019 Visual Foresight, a
video-prediction-based control algorithm is used to make a robot roll a die
purely based on tactile images, and in Lambeta et al. 2020 a model-based
RL algorithm is applied to in-hand manipulation using GelSight images.
Unfortunately applying GelSight sensors in practical real-world scenarios is
still challenging due to its large size and the fact that it is only sensitive
on one side. Here we introduce a new, more compact tactile sensor design based
on GelSight that allows for omnidirectional sensing, i.e. making the sensor
sensitive on all sides like a human finger, and show how this opens up new
possibilities for sensorimotor learning. We demonstrate this by teaching a
robot to pick up electrical plugs and insert them purely based on tactile
A standard GelSight sensor, shown in the figure below on the left, uses an
off-the-shelf webcam to capture high-resolution images of deformations on the
silicone gel skin. The inside surface of the gel skin is illuminated with
colored LEDs, providing sufficient lighting for the tactile image.
Comparison of GelSight-style sensor (left side) to our OmniTact sensor (right
Existing GelSight designs are either flat, have small sensitive fields or only
provide low-resolution signals. For example, prior versions of the GelSight
sensor, provide high resolution (400×400 pixel) images but are large and flat,
providing sensitivity on only one side, while the commercial OptoForce
sensor (recently discontinued by OnRobot) is curved, but only provides force
readings as a single 3-dimensional force vector.
The OmniTact Sensor
Our OmniTact sensor design aims to address these limitations. It provides both
multi-directional and high-resolution sensing on its curved surface in a
compact form factor. Similar to GelSight, OmniTact uses cameras embedded into
a silicone gel skin to capture deformation of the skin, providing a rich signal
from which a wide range of features such as shear and normal forces, object
pose, geometry and material properties can be inferred. OmniTact uses multiple
cameras giving it both high-resolution and multi-directional capabilities. The
sensor itself can be used as a “finger” and can be integrated into a gripper or
robotic hand. It is more compact than previous GelSight sensors, which is
accomplished by utilizing micro-cameras typically used in endoscopes, and by
casting the silicone gel directly onto the cameras. Tactile images from
OmniTact are shown in the figures below.
Tactile readings from OmniTact with various objects. From left to right: M3
Screw Head, M3 Screw Threads, Combination Lock with numbers 4 3 9, Printed
Circuit Board (PCB), Wireless Mouse USB. All images are taken from the
Tactile readings from the OmniTact being rolled over a gear rack. The
multi-directional capabilities of OmniTact keep the gear rack in view as the
sensor is rotated.
One of our primary goals throughout the design process was to make OmniTact as
compact as possible. To accomplish this goal, we used micro-cameras with large
viewing angles and a small focus distance. Specifically we picked cameras that
are commonly used in medical endoscopes measuring just (1.35 x 1.35 x 5 mm) in
size with a focus distance of 5 mm. These cameras were arranged in a 3D printed
camera mount as shown in the figure below which allowed us to minimize blind
spots on the surface of the sensor and reduce the diameter (D) of the sensor to
This image shows the fields of view and arrangement of the 5 micro-cameras
inside the sensor. Using this arrangement, most of the fingertip can be made
sensitive effectively. In the vertical plane, shown in A, we obtain
$alpha=270$ degrees of sensitivity. In the horizontal plane, shown in B, we
obtain 360 degrees of sensitivity, except for small blind spots between the
fields of view.
Electrical Connector Insertion Task
We show that OmniTact’s multi-directional tactile sensing capabilities can be
leveraged to solve a challenging robotic control problem: Inserting an
electrical connector blindly into a wall outlet purely based on information
from the multi-directional touch sensor (shown in the figure below). This task
is challenging since it requires localizing the electrical connector relative
to the gripper and localizing the gripper relative to the wall outlet.
To learn the insertion task, we used a simple imitation learning algorithm that
estimates the end-effector displacement required for inserting the plug into
the outlet based on the tactile images from the OmniTact sensor. Our model was
trained with just 100 demonstrations of insertion by controlling the robot
using keyboard control. Successful insertions obtained by running the trained
policy are shown in the gifs below.
As shown in the table below, using the multi-directional capabilities (both the
top and side camera) of our sensor allowed for the highest success rate (80%)
in comparison to using just one camera from the sensor, indicating that
multi-directional touch sensing is indeed crucial for solving this task. We
additionally compared performance with another multi-directional tactile
sensor, the OptoForce sensor, which only had a success rate of 17%.
We believe that compact, high resolution and multi-directional touch sensing
has the potential to transform the capabilities of current robotic manipulation
systems. We suspect that multi-directional tactile sensing could be an
essential element in general-purpose robotic manipulation in addition to
applications such as robotic teleoperation in surgery, as well as in sea and
space missions. In the future, we plan to make OmniTact cheaper and more
compact, allowing it to be used in a wider range of tasks. Our team
additionally plans to conduct more robotic manipulation research that will
inform future generations of tactile sensors.
This blog post is based on the following paper which will be presented at the
International Conference on Robotics and Automation 2020:
- OmniTact: A Multi-Directional High-Resolution Touch Sensor
Akhil Padmanabha, Frederik Ebert, Stephen Tian, Roberto Calandra, Chelsea Finn, Sergey Levine
Paper Link: https://arxiv.org/abs/2003.06965
Research Website: https://sites.google.com/berkeley.edu/omnitact/home
We would like to thank Professor Sergey Levine, Professor Chelsea Finn, and
Stephen Tian for their valuable feedback when preparing this blog post.