and Hand in the Touch Lab
haptics with Mandayam A.
(this is an expanded online version of the interview appearing in
the print copy of RLE at MIT)
February Issue 2
RLE: First of all, how did it
feel to have the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,Tony Blair,
reference your work in RLE during a major technology policy speech
SRINIVASAN: That was a wonderful
surprise! When Mel Slater of the University College, London and
I dreamed of developing the technology to enable two users on either
side of the Atlantic to make contact through touch and manipulate
the same virtual object,we knew that its success would
establish a milestone in the long line of transatlantic communications.
We were however unprepared for the worldwide positive news event
it became. Tony Blair mentioned it as symbolic of what amazing progress
can be expected of the current information revolution, and compared
it to the successful advances that enabled the industrial revolution.
When you are struggling in the lab to make progress amidst a lot
of obstacles, to know that an idea you follow through can have this
kind of impact on the world outside inspires us to think bold thoughts
and chart new paths.
RLE: How do your efforts to deepen
our scientific understanding of the haptic sensorimotor system interplay
with your activities to advance the engineering of haptic interface
SRINIVASAN: It is clear that
scientific understanding and technological progress go hand-in-hand.
Therefore it seems clear to me that they need to co-evolve and any
exercise in drawing boundaries between them is artificial and counter-productive.
In the particular context of haptics, to develop a scientific understanding
of the human haptic system, we need machines that can deliver behaviorally
relevant stimuli at a level of precision that exceeds human haptic
capabilities. To design such machines however, we need to know what
the human haptic capabilities and limitations are. This chicken
and egg problem can only be solved with co-evolution of the
science of human haptics and the technology of machine haptics.
Once a certain level of maturity is achieved in each, wide variety
of applications such as those I have mentioned above become possible.
RLE: What was the most unexpected
turn that your research in haptics took
as you worked to connect biology with engineering?
SRINIVASAN: When I started
out in haptics, I was focused on developing a quantitative understanding
of the mechanics and the mechanisms of the human haptic system,
at a level comparable to what we know about our visual and auditory
systems. However, as we started to develop computer controlled electromechanical
devices to deliver precise touch stimuli, it became clear that similar
machines could be built to function as touch interfaces to virtual
reality and tele-operation. In the last decade, we were able to
progress quickly due to rapid advances in sensors, actuators, and
computers, and our knowledge of human haptics. So rather unexpectedly
I started working on virtual reality and a variety of its applications.
Our success is in no small measure due also to the multidisciplinary
research culture generally at MIT and particularly here at RLE that
encourages cutting edge research whose outcome is quite unpredictable.
RLE: Your group has recently initiated
major new collaborative efforts with
physicians in the medical research community. How do you see the
fundamental research that you do in RLE tie into medical applications
of the future?
SRINIVASAN: At the current
state of haptic technology, the capabilities of the devices and
some of the needs in the medical research community seem to have
a good match and we are excited about this opportunity. Three of
our current projects illustrate this. First, we are working with
colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital to investigate
noninvasive imaging of various skin conditions ranging from burn
injuries to skin cancers that can be done rapidly in an out-patient
clinic at low cost. In another project with MGH, the multimodal
virtual environment system we created is being applied to the development
of virtual reality based trainers for needle procedures and minimally
invasive surgery, similar in concept to the flight simulators that
are being used to train pilots. Finally, in collaboration with Duke
University Medical School, we recently succeeded in controlling
a robot in RLE as well as one at Duke in real-time using signals
transmitted from a population of brain neurons of a monkey at Duke.
This work has opened up a whole new paradigm for mind control over
machines as well as scientific exploration of the sensorimotor functions
of the brain.