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2003 May Issue 3

RLE Pursues the Optical Clock
Erich P. Ippen at the New Limits of Precision

Multidisciplinary Initiative
the DoD MURI program and RLE

Rising Stars
Oxenham and Sugiyama

Students at the Forefront
The Helen Carr Peake Research Prize

Computational Prototyping
an interview with Jacob K. White

Introducing a New Professor
Luca Daniel joins RLE

Download PDF of Issue 3


Mind and Hand in the Touch Lab
haptics with Mandayam A. Srinivasan
(this is an expanded online version of the interview appearing in the print copy of RLE at MIT)
2003 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 last November?
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 The work in the Touch Lab is guided by a broad vision of haptics which includes all aspects of information acquisition and object manipulation through touch by humans, machines, of a combination of the two; and the environments can be real or virtual.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 technology?

Scenes from the Touch Lab

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.

Additional Links
Mandayam A. Srinivasan

Mandayam A. Srinivasan was promoted in the summer of 2002 to Senior Research Scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Srinivasan received his PhD from Yale University in 1984. He came to MIT in 1987 as a research fellow in the Newman Laboratory, and joined RLE in 1989 as Research Scientist in RLE’s Sensory Communication Group. Today, Srinivasan directs RLE’s Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics, known worldwide as the Touch Lab.

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