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MIT student dances with robots

The bubbly clarinet solo that opens a 1940s swing classic begins, setting a pair of dancers in motion. They move in constant rhythm, varying their steps to the song's changing tempo. Slight pushes and pulls of the dancers' hands allow seamless transitions between swing-outs, tuck turns and Texas Tommies.

You might call this swing dancing. Or you might call it a highly evolved system of communication and control via haptic (touch-based) signaling. Graduate student Sommer Gentry, an expert swing dancer, sees it both ways.

Gentry, who has appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, is investigating the complex haptic communication behind the often-improvised moves in swing dancing. Her experiments have already shown that pure haptic communication (without visual cues) is sufficient for two humans--or even a human and a robot--to move in coordination. The paper describing the results of Gentry's human-robot experiments won the Best Student Paper Award at the 2003 IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Conference.

Understanding the effectiveness of haptic communication in swing dancing could lead to broad applications in human-robot collaboration, says Gentry. "This is a research field with important applications," she continued, such as robotic surgery. "There are existing steady-hand robots that [a doctor can] hold onto that will take the tremors out of their movement. Such robots could be improved by research like mine that might imbue the tool with a richer ability to understand and respond to what the user is doing based on a 'vocabulary' of moves."

"Sommer is entering an exciting area of research which is between engineering, psychology, and human motor-control studies. It could be of importance for sports training or rehabilitation engineering--the study of how to use technology to help humans overcome disability or injuries," said Roderick Mur
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4-Feb-2004


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