Analog chip does job of spinal cord for locomotion

While I was at Johns Hopkins University during the summer, I found out about the first demonstration of a new chip that can be used to stimulate locomotion in an animal (tested on a temporarily-paralyzed cat, see right). Unlike previous controllers, this one is tiny and low-power. However, it can still take account of the sensory input coming from the movement of the limbs through a tiny neural network.

I find the work very interesting and, potentially, extremely important. Rather than explain it here, I recommend you check out the story I wrote for EE Times on the subject. Let me know what you think.

Diagram: The schematic of the experiment showing locomotion stimulated by a central pattern generator (CPG) chip. 

Feeling virtual worlds

Me trying a Force Dimension haptic device.Like many universities, EPFL has an innovation park for start-up companies: there I visited Force Dimension, a company that has exploited the delta robot invented by Reymond Clavel to create a haptic device. In this kind of system you don’t expect your hand to explore a system directly (as with the virtual reality workstation I mentioned previously). Instead, your interaction with the virtual world is mediated through some kind of instrument. For instance, in the image on the right, you can think of the black sphere I’m holding as the handle of some kind of short, fairly blunt, tool. I can use this to probe the virtual landscape. If I hit a solid object, I will feel force feedback from the robot arm. The system also creates vibrations that allow me to feel textures and friction as I move around. Read More …

Talk to the hand

This tactile stimulator developed at Johns Hopkins University has servo motors that control the force exerted by each pin.I’m interested in different ways of displaying information to our bodies, and particularly to our skin. So, in my June visits to the Washington DC area and to Switzerland (Zurich and Lausanne), I made a point of trying to see as many people working with tactile and haptic displays as possible. I had the opportunity to try three very different devices, which made me realize just how difficult a problem this is. Read More …

Senses: What are they good for?

London black cabs.When I first heard the story about the Feelspace or North belt, one of the things that excited me the most was that it demonstrated how we learn from all the stimuli we are regularly in contact with, even those that don’t seem very special. We learn that does and doesn’t ‘feel right’ from the swish of our winter coats to the sound of our shoes on the ground to the vibration of our cars. We don’t just do passives ensing, but active: we interact with the world in routine ways and can tell something about our environment by the way it reacts to us. Read More …

Loser: IEEE Spectrum on tongue display

IEEE Spectrum, January 2007One of my colleagues told me at lunch that he’d seen an IEEE Spectrum article saying that the Wicab tongue display was one of the ‘loser’ technologies of 2007, so I thought I’d take a quick break from the idea of intuitive displays to deal with this. I was very disappointed with the article, in that none of the ‘experts’ quoted seemed to have any specific knowledge of the device, how it was perceived by users, what it felt like to use etc. Also, it was not noted that these people were, essentially, competitors. (I have no axe to grind except that I think it was bad journalism). Read More …

Physical intuition

Read-outs from the cockpit of the OPL experimental plane.After the last couple of posts I got some interesting comments about familiarity being important to intuition. Roger Attrill pointed out that Adobe users would find Photoshop intuitive (while others wouldn’t) and Bob Salmon pointed out that musicians might find software using some kind of musical-score based interface natural to use that the rest of us wouldn’t. Read More …

Getting complicated

WiresDuring my recent research into the world of sensory interfaces, I had at least a dozen discussions, maybe more, about what the word intuitive means. I can’t remotely claim to have cracked this: on the contrary, it seems to me that people are still at the stage of figuring out the right questions to ask. It’s true that human-machine interfaces have been well studied and there’s vast literature on the subject. However, though sensory interfaces that allow you to interact with the real world (rather than a computer world) will certainly have many things in common with virtual displays, I think there will be some differences too. Read More …

Intuition versus attention

My chance to be a guinea pig in a University of Oxford experiment. I react to lights on the table and buzzes through the bands in my arm by pressing buttons with my finger and pedals with my feet.One of the aspirations of those trying to feed information into the brain through the senses is how to make the process intuitive. Roughly we know what this means: we want to have the information be self-explanatory, to not require any further thought, to immediately and naturally provoke the behavior that we intended. But what exactly does this mean in practice? How does it break down? Read More …

Seeing with your brain

BlindfoldBiological brains can do something that we’re still working on building into machines: rewire themselves to take advantage of the best information available. This is a well-known phenomenon, but it’s not widely understood just how radically different the rewiring or optimized wiring can be from what is considered ‘normal’. Read More …

I want my ESP

Gift_1Stefan Marti is a research scientist with Samsung in San Jose. When he was a student, he had the experience of walking around with a broken vibrating pager that gave him an unexpected extra sense: for certain kinds of electromagnetic fields. From the buzzing in his pocket, he knew when people were making popcorn in the microwave, when there was a wireless router nearby and, most interestingly, when a phone—whether his or someone else’s—was about to ring. Read More …