Mind-Body Problems

In this issue’s cover story, “Touching the Virtual Frontier,” associate editor Trey Popp describes some mind-bending research going on in the University’s Haptics Lab. Haptics is a branch of engineering that deals with “human interaction with real and virtual objects through touch and motion” (think an iPhone touch-screen or a pilot’s joystick), and Penn’s lab is directed by Katherine Kuchenbecker, the Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation, who founded it when she came here in 2007.

Though still at an early stage, research projects going on in the lab have a variety of potential applications. Some are relatively straightforward for the layman to comprehend, conceptually at least. The Tactile Gaming Vest, for example, is designed to add another layer of realism to popular “first-person shooter” video games by using electronic impulses to mimic sensations like the impact of a bullet or the burn from a flame. 

Others, such as digitizing different shapes and textures that can then be stored, emailed, and felt the way we share pictures and videos now, are a bit harder to grasp, so to speak. “The more [Kuchenbecker] talks about her research,” Trey writes, “the fuzzier the definition of touching becomes. Not to mention things.”

The gaming vest could be adapted for military training, and one day the ability to reproduce shapes and textures could help surgeons (in training or, eventually, performing actual operations) by providing the tactile cues—the feel of tying a suture, or the difference between diseased and healthy tissue, say—that are absent when performing procedures using remote-controlled instruments. Not to mention that it could add a whole new dimension to online shopping.

Another project is aimed at helping stroke victims relearn the ability to make purposeful movements by means of a sleeve equipped with sensors that signal when a motion goes off course. Kuchenbecker, who played volleyball as a student at Stanford, suggested to Trey that athletes seeking to sharpen their skills could use a similar system.

Judging from the essay, “Desperately Seeking Blank,” by Doug Glanville EAS’93, in certain circumstances what an athlete could really use as a performance-enhancer would be a device to wipe his or her brain clean of outside thoughts and distractions. Since ending his nine-year Major League Baseball career, Glanville has reinvented himself as a writer—countering, as a ballplayer and engineer, not one but two stereotypes of inarticulateness. A recent online columnist for The New York Times and a regular analyst on ESPN.com, Glanville has a new book out, The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View, which has been well received. Besides his essay, written for the Gazette, which deals thoughtfully with a time when he couldn’t blank out the real world, we also offer a brief excerpt from the book and a Q&A .

This issue also features our annual coverage of Commencement and Alumni Weekend. Graduation speakers included US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr C’87 and Vice President Joe Biden, whose daughter Ashley was graduating from the School of Social Policy and Practice. Aided by ideal weather, this year’s Alumni Weekend broke records, with a total attendance of more than 8,000. Remember the fun, or see what you missed, in our photo essay on page 56 and online.

—John Prendergast C’80

P.S. I’m pleased to report that the Gazette recently won a Bronze Award for Periodical Staff Writing from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), while two features by Trey Popp were singled out in the Best Articles category: “Ultimate Fundraising Championship” (Gold) and “Are Better Brains Better?” (Bronze).

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