BROOKLYN, New York -- I don't know Brett Klisch's wife. So it's especially inappropriate to be poking around the inside of her skull.
Yet that's exactly what I'm doing one bright Thursday morning at Xomer Studios, the toy-design shop that Klisch runs out of his brownstone here in Park Slope.
As Klisch's three-legged Chihuahua barks excitedly, I feel my way along the contours of his wife's face, hesitantly tracing the hollows of her eyes and the bridge of her nose.
Then, screwing up my courage, I push straight through her forehead and into her skull, where I root around a bit before pulling a long column of gray material back out through her nose.
"Now that's something you can't do with clay," Klisch says.
Luckily, my efforts at radical plastic surgery are confined to a virtual model that has been constructed using a 3-D laser scanner and some powerful graphics software.
The model is virtual, but it certainly feels like I'm dragging a real sculptor's tool across a woman's face.
I can actually feel the rise and fall of her nasal bone as clearly as if I were touching her flesh -- and when I push against her forehead, there's a brief moment of hard resistance before my hand pops through her skull, then another as I push through the other side of her head.
These eerily realistic sensations are produced by a Phantom Omni, a virtual sculpting tool that looks like a pen mounted on a small robot arm.
The Phantom Omni is one of several so-called haptic devices that are revolutionizing toy design and a host of other fields.
The term "haptic" comes from the Greek word ''haptikos,'' meaning ''able to touch or grasp," and haptic devices provide tactile information to their users in the form of force-feedback.
For example, haptic surgical simulators, which represent a large and growing chunk of the haptic market, mimic the sensory experience of suturing a wound or performing laparoscopic surgery.
Haptics have made inroads into gaming as vibrating joysticks, gamepads and steering wheels, but according to Candace Levin, a professor in the toy-design department at Otis College of Art and Design, cost has proven an obstacle in making haptic feedback a common feature of mass-market toys.
Yet such technology has thoroughly penetrated the design side of the toy industry, rendering the once-laborious process of sculpting prototypes far more efficient.
More and more toy designers are using haptic interfaces like the Phantom, produced by SensAble Technologies of Woburn, Massachusetts, and its accompanying FreeForm software, which digitally replicates the behavior of sculptor's clay.
"All the major toy companies are our customers, from Fisher-Price and Hasbro to Mega Bloks and Playmobil," says Laura Wallace, director of marketing for SensAble.
Instead of building toy prototypes with modeling clay and dental tools, designers are scanning or drafting 3-D virtual objects and then "printing" them in plastic, wax or metal. Using rapid prototyping tools like stereolithography, plastic shapes can be printed in laser-cured resin in remarkably little time.
A digitally designed prototype can be tweaked and altered without limit, scaled to any size, then transmitted to a manufacturer as an electronic file for production.
"All the sculptors around here are using computers now," says Bill Rawley, a designer for Hasbro who has worked in the company's Advanced Concepts Group.
Haptic technology makes the digital modeling process even more attractive and accessible to the average designer. Klisch, for example, had been aware of digital modeling for years, but was hesitant to try it because he found the process to be too alien.
He also worried that it would steal jobs from traditional, hands-on sculptors. "Digital to me was the bad guy," he says. "It took a while to get pulled over to the dark side."
Nonetheless, he found the Phantom to be highly intuitive and "organic," and quickly incorporated it into his work.
The organic quality Klisch refers to is, of course, entirely illusory.
The resistance I feel as I manipulate the Phantom Omni is generated by a system of motors and cables triggered by the FreeForm software installed on Klisch's Dell laptop.
According to Dave Girard, director of operations and hardware development for SensAble, positional encoders in the Phantom analyze my hand movements in three dimensions and position the onscreen representation of my stylus accordingly. Whenever that virtual stylus collides with a virtual object -- a nose, for example, or a forehead -- the Phantom's internal machinery kicks in, making me feel as if I were really touching something.
I can even change the physical attributes of my virtual clay, making it harder or softer by adjusting the current supplied to the Phantom's motors.
Still, there are occasions when an experienced sculptor like Klisch prefers to work with a real lump of clay and a tiny pick, as he did recently while prototyping a Jedi figurine he hopes to license to Lucasfilm.
Even so, Klisch is likely to scan his handiwork into the computer and finish the job digitally using the Phantom.
"It's just another tool," this former Luddite says of his high-tech device. "We use it when it's appropriate."