Decoding Design

Why design is key in haptics innovation

Posting in Design

Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, an assistant professor of innovation in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a newly named PopTech Science fellow, discusses why engineers who keep aesthetics in mind and think creatively may have the upper hand in the haptics field.

Do engineers who think aesthetically, like top designers do, have an upper hand? Is this true in the field of haptics, or interactive computer applications and robotics that offer simulated tactile sensations? Yes, according to Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She was named one of ten PopTech Science Fellows in early August.

Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Mechanical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania

PopTech, a non-profit "innovation network" best known for its high-profile annual conference in Camden, Maine, selected Kuchenbecker for her work at the crossroads of haptics engineering and product design in a variety of fields from dentistry to stroke rehabilitation to potential haptic apps for mobile phones and tablet computers. "World-changing ideas emerge in white spaces, where fields overlap. Katherine is one of those young scientists doing extraordinary, important, engaging work at the top of her field," said Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech.

I spoke with Kuchenbecker about her ideas on the importance of design--and design-thinking--in haptics and other areas of engineering, as well as her work in the lab at Penn that is likely to lead to real products. We also discussed what potential new collaborations she hatched at the 2011 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows Program, a training session and networking event held at the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in early August. Here is our edited conversation:

In descriptions of your work, the word "design" often is used. You also studied design along with engineering at Stanford. How important is design in the field of haptics?

Design is essential to any field in which you’re creating something new. When we're creating new haptic interfaces in my lab, we have to control not only the functionality, but also the look and feel. Engineers often focus on technical details, but I’ve always had a deep appreciation of the aesthetic side of engineering projects as well.

When designing a product, it’s important to understand that someone will potentially test, use and buy it. It has to appeal on many levels. It shouldn’t just look good. It has to work.

But beauty is important, too. If something looks beautiful, it is often more robust. Think of seeing a device with wires hanging out—you think, "it might not work." And if it’s not symmetrical, the alignment of an important part might be off.

What projects are you currently working on right now at Penn that you are excited to share with the general public?

We have many interesting projects, so it's hard to pick. One of the highlights is haptography. Our goal is to capture how things feel in the same way that photography captures how things look. We accomplish this by recording what doctors and dentists, in particular, see, hear, and feel as they treat patients.

For example, in the field of anesthesiology, new doctors have no idea what to feel for when inserting an epidural needle for the first time. It can take up to 30 minutes for a doctor to do this procedure when he or she is just starting out. We hope that we will be able to use haptography to help accelerate physicans’ experience long before they try out an injection on a patient.

Another field we're focusing on in haptography work is dentistry. Dental students must learn to detect very subtle differences in tooth enamel. A certain number accidentally leave cavities unfilled or fill where there are no cavities. Haptics can help dentists feel the different textures, as tiny as the differences may be, so they make fewer mistakes on real patients.

Outside of medicine, what would you say the next frontiers are in haptics, based on your research?

Adding touch to tactile screens on mobile phones and computers, as well as the creation of autonomous robots that can put away dishes and laundry because they've learned to respond to certain textures and tactile sensations.

I also think there is a lot of potential for haptic design and innovation in sports training and physical therapy.

The area of haptics on cell phones and other mobile devices is very exciting.  So far, there's so much happening on screens, but the touch interactions are almost completely one-way. You rarely feel any sensations back, like you do when you touch real buttons or switches.  There is already a simple haptic device in every phone (the motor that allows them to vibrate), but it's pretty simple.  Future technologies will be much more advanced.

We're working on a way to create realistic textures on tablet computers. When you drag your finger across a phone's screen, what would it be like to feel the edges of buttons and keys? If you saw a picture of a cat sitting on a table, what if you could feel the cat's fur and then the roughness of the table it was sitting on?  These are all very challenging actuator technology problems, but there are many haptics researchers and companies working on these types of issues.

There's huge potential for the rehabilitation and sports industries. Already there are commercial motion capture systems, like Microsoft's Kinect gaming platform. We can measure arm and hand movements in real time. We'd like to push that further by adding touch feedback as you move around.

For instance, we are working on a project called StrokeSleeve. It gives gentle taps, or strokes, on a stroke patient’s skin as they are doing exercise repetitions during physical therapy. They don't just see instructions on a computer screen. The device can communicate with them in a natural way and try to aid in their physical movement.

What's really promising with haptics is that we're moving closer to being able to communicate with natural physical movements, rather than by typing or using a mouse. Imagine being able to gesture for "help" instantly rather than having to type it out.

Your academic title includes the term "innovation." How do you define that word? And how does the concept of design--and so-called "design thinking"-- relate to your definition and practice of innovation?

I'm honored to be the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. Using the term in the title means that Penn is committed to innovation. How do I define it?

To innovate is to try to put together seemingly unconnected categories to make something magical, while being committed to find an excellent solution. Innovation means resisting falling in love in with any one idea, so you can be sure to find the best possible answer out there.

As an engineer or a designer, it's easy to fall in love with one idea, but it's more exciting to try to push the boundaries. That means coming up with lots of bad ideas as you’re testing limits. But then you can see things others haven't seen. With my students at Penn, as well as my colleagues, we identify problems and then come up with ten, twenty, one hundred answers. Then we stand back and evaluate them. This helps us rapidly move toward solutions that haven’t shown up before.

So my quick definition of innovation is to look at the world and see possibilities that aren't yet there.

Can you discuss how you and your fellow PopTech Science Fellows cross-pollinated ideas while at the program in D.C.? And in general, what's the value of such interdisciplinary discussions when thinking about haptics design?

What I liked most about meeting the other PopTech Science Fellows was discovering the wide variety of backgrounds we represented. Having an interdisciplinary group gave us outside perspectives on each others' work.  Science and engineering professors are often deeply focused on the details of our work, and we tend to use technical words that no one would use on the street. But being around really excellent thinkers in different fields forced us to zoom out, to learn how to explain to others what we do, and figure out what potential our work may have for society and not just our specific research fields.

I made connections with other Science Fellows that may lead to possible collaborations I'd never thought about before. For example, I met Milton Garces from the University of Hawaii, who studies the deep Earth vibrations caused by volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. We saw parallels to one project in my lab, where we are studying how doctors give epidural injections; they must learn to feel for very fine textures and vibrations as they insert the needle through different tissues around the patient's spine. Milton and I may end up collaborating to create new techniques in vibration signal processing.

Photo: courtesy Katherine J. Kuchenbecker

Related on SmartPlanet:

Videogames like Assassin's Creed are about to get very real by Christie Nicholson

Vibrating belt guides soldiers when they cannot see by Christie Nicholson

Haptic tech: coming to cars, phones and even clothes by Andrew Nusca

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure