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Engineers of Touch
by Karon MacLean

Engineers and artists often view one another across a divide. When they choose to adopt the machine as their theme, artists tend to paint, sculpt, or write to examine and imagine a future world populated by technologies presently in their infancy, often taking into account the cultural and sociological issues and potentialities which these technologies embody. On the other side, the engineer might use her craft as an aesthetic medium. The robot builder in particular can create machines that demonstrate balletic gesture, shape, and tactility. Results can range from a realization of the beauty or power inherent in the motion of a practical device, to an explicitly designed expressiveness or commentary.

I swim the river in between. More engineer than artist, I design machines to solve problems or satisfy my own curiosity, not to make statements. My first contact with machine expression was a job designing the movements of anthropomorphic entertainment robots to make them appear more human (and make Disney more money). However, my professional path has meandered between the twin poles of expression and utility until the two seem nearly the same: I've found that one solution to many problems in my domain is the addition of expressive power, and this is where I try to work.

My main occupation is crafting new kinds of interactions between humans and computers using physical manipulation and the haptic sense - the sense of touch. For example, one kind of physical interface I work with is a robotic "handle" through which a person can feel virtual environments that exist only in a computer's imagination. The consumer public first encountered a crude example of this in force-feedback game displays that jiggle and hiccup and jerk to simulate a gun or a steering wheel. Higher-end research displays can excite a greater range of haptic sensation, and are generally used for things like scientific visualization or surgical simulation.

I myself aim for simplicity of design and quality of experience. I create small, specifically targeted haptic interfaces and embed them anywhere in the world where they might be of interest or use. Sometimes this involves rendering distributed computer intelligence more comprehensible to human users so that, for example, they can tell who has called their cellular phone without actually looking or listening, or cruise through hundreds of TV channels with a remote control and quickly find the one that they want. Haptic feedback can also provide the kind of continuous, tightly integrated control over a computer process that is needed for making music, drawing, or sculpting.

Sometimes, however, I am simply interested in knowing how people might react to, say, a doorknob that jumps or purrs or grates depending on the tone of the conversation happening inside a room (or in a room on the other side of the world). Or perhaps a doorknob that gets warm when a lot of people have passed through the door that day, but slick with condensation when they haven't. Will what they feel make sense to them? How much and what kinds of information can a haptic interface tell them? Will they stop and explore it? Will they be startled, delighted, or frightened? Through what immediately comprehensible haptic language can a computer communicate with humans - and vice versa? To these ends I build and program devices, test them, and often run psychological studies to answer the fundamental questions that emerge. These in turn inform the next generation of design.

I was trained in a hard-core engineering department where a haptic doorknob would have raised eyebrows. It is the diverse collection of people I've been fortunate to work with since leaving that department whom I owe for broadening my view of what constitutes interesting and legitimate research or design. These people have been artists, musicians, videographers, and ethnologists who have shown me a new world of opportunity and reward, from computer-conducted crafts in need of better handles to statements or creations of whimsy that push the expressive and sensorial potential of my technology. In return, I've offered them a palette of tools - a new means of harnessing computational power by putting their hands directly and literally into the computer.

The river in between art and engineering has slippery banks. A common response to the haptic doorknob at one engineering conference was to wonder how many I actually thought I'd sell. Meanwhile, many artists are reluctant to accept someone with engineering expertise as anything more than a technician carrying out orders. Collaboration isn't in everyone's genes, but when attitudes and goals make it possible, both sides and the audience or users win. The prize? Humanized technology and unexplored domains of expressive media.

Karen Maclean is an assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of British Columbia. Her work with haptic interfaces and robotics aims to restore aspects of human physicality to computer interaction.

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