Human Computer Integration Lab

Computer Science Department, University of Chicago


Understanding Agency in Haptic Devices

Our group (with the help of our collaborators) attempts understanding the loss of agency when using haptic devices capable of actuating the user's body involuntarily. We asked ourselves the question: how does a user feel when one is moved by an external force, such when you are using an exoskeleton or electrical muscle stimulation?

To answer this we turned to two core questions: (1) can haptic systems actuate us to provide a significant faster reaction time without always entirely compromising our sense of agency? (CHI'19); (2) How does our brain integrate haptic feedback when moved by an external force such as EMS? (Cortex'19 and CHI'19).

You can jump directly to our publications on agency.


The impact of haptic devices (especially EMS) in the sense of agency

Motivation: More than years have passed since researchers started using electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) in interactive systems. Kruijff et al. (VRST'06) explored how these medical-inspired devices could change gaming on a desktop by allowing the user's muscles to contract in response to game events. This fueled researchers such as Emi Tamaki & Jun Rekimoto to open the doors of EMS to the CHI community (CHI'11). Ten years later, the HCI community found remarkable new applications for EMS: Max Pfeiffer & Michael Rohs explored how to steer participants, Jun Nishida & Kenji Suzuki enabled communicating gestures from person to person, and myself together with Patrick Baudisch explored how to turn the user's body into input and output devices (just to cite a few, for a more detailed timeline of the many contributing faces of EMS in HCI, see Pedro's PhD thesis). Furthermore, while EMS is certainly a more recent approach to force feedback, exoskeletons and other motor-based haptic devices have a long history.

Our goal: however, ten years after EMS' appearance in the HCI scene and after decades of exoskeletons, it's about time we talk about agency. When it comes to EMS, these haptic systems offer a compact and wearable form factor (when compared to their mechanical haptic counterparts, such as exoskeletons) but being moved by an external force: feels weird. If you were ever moved by some haptic actuated device (be it EMS, exoskeleton or a robotic arm) you probably felt how strange it is to see and feel your body being moved by an external cause. In other words: you feel no sense of agency.

To answer why this happens we turned to two core questions: (1) can haptic systems actuate us to provide a significant faster reaction time without always entirely compromising my agency? (2) How does our brain integrate haptic feedback when moved by an external force such as EMS?

1. Preemptive Agency (CHI'19)

We explore how delaying the onset of the haptic actuation dramatically improves the sense of agency! Despite being a first step to understand the relationship between agency and preemptive, we think these results are really exiting; they allow us to build a model to choose how much to sacrifice agency to gain reaction time speed ups, and vice versa! We demonstrated that by delaying the onset of haptic actuation systems (such as EMS) we can accelerate human reaction time without compromising the user's agency! (video here)

Now that we understood that it is possible to preserve a partial sense of agency while, still, allowing a user to react faster, we explored a series of applications that benefit from this. For instance, we demonstrated how a user can use our finding to take a photograph of a high speed object in mid air (we demonstrated this at SIGGRAPH eTech'19 and received the Laval Virtual Award for it).

2. Understanding Haptic Mismatches via Brain Evoked Related Potentials (CHI'19)

Going deeper into the question of agency in haptic interfaces, one might ask: but how does our brain integrate and process these haptic signals? We uncovered another small piece of the haptic agency puzzle while trying to understand how to detect mismatches in virtual reality (VR) without having to ask user's about their subjective experience; i.e., can we evaluate the coherence of a visuo-haptic VR experience without having to show you a presence questionnaire?

In this project, instead of asking the user, we measured their brain's responses, using EEG, as their interacted with VR objects that exhibited also haptic feedback (in fact, vibration and/or EMS). We found out that when there is a mismatch between visuals and haptics (e.g., out of sync) our brain's event related potential (ERP) looks very different from when things feel right. In fact, there is a pronounced negative valley in the user's ERP when things are off from our expectations. We found out that we can use EEG to detect mismatches between visuals and haptic while a user is interacting with a virtual environment. This is a very different way to understand realism in VR, which does not rely on asking user's questions.

It is precisely this mismatch in expectations, which we observed even when user's did not consciously realize this were off, that might help us understand the puzzle of agency and EMS. These unrealistic situations might be very similar to when we are moved by an inexplicable external force, such as EMS.

3. Agency-dependent processing of touch (Cortex'19)

Going even deeper into the neural processes, with the assistance of functional magnetic resonnance imaging (fMRI) we can examine our brain at work when we are moved by external forces like EMS. We used fMRI to examine how agency (i.e., whether you moved yourself consciously or EMS moves you) impacts how our brain interpret and integrates sensory information such as touch sensations!

Our findings shine some light into an old sensory puzzle: tactile input generated by one’s own agency is generally attenuated; conversely, externally caused tactile input is enhanced; e.g., during haptic exploration. Our results suggest an agency-dependent somatosensory processing in the parietal operculuml in other words: agency drives tactile perception too.

Publications

Action-dependent processing of touch in the human parietal operculum

Jakub Limanowski, Pedro Lopes, Janis Keck, Patrick Baudisch, Karl Friston, and Felix Blankenburg. In Cerebral Cortex (journal), to appear.

Tactile input generated by one’s own agency is generally attenuated. Conversely, externally caused tactile input is enhanced; e.g., during haptic exploration. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand how the brain accomplishes this weighting. Our results suggest an agency-dependent somatosensory processing in the parietal operculum.

Cerebral Cortex paper

Preemptive Action: Accelerating Human Reaction using Electrical Muscle Stimulation Without Compromising Agency

Shunichi Kasahara, Jun Nishida and Pedro Lopes. In Proc. CHI’19, Paper 643 (full paper) and demonstration at SIGGRAPH'19 eTech.

Grand Prize, awarded by Laval Virtual in partnership with SIGGRAPH'19 eTech.

We found out that it is possible to optimize the timing of haptic systems to accelerate human reaction time without fully compromising the user' sense of agency. This work was done in cooperation with Shunichi Kasahara from Sony CSL. Read more.

CHI'19 paper video SIGGRAPH'19 etech (soon) CHI'19 talk (slides) CHI talk video

Detecting Visuo-Haptic Mismatches in Virtual Reality using the Prediction Error Negativity of Event-Related Brain Potentials

Lukas Gehrke, Sezen Akman, Pedro Lopes, Albert Chen, ..., Klaus, Gramann. In Proc. CHI’19, Paper 427. (full paper)

We detect visuo-haptic mismatches in VR by analyzing the user's event-related potentials (ERP). In our EEG study, participants touched VR objects and received either no haptics, vibration, or vibration and EMS. We found that the negativity component (prediction error) was more pronounced in unrealistic VR situations, indicating visuo-haptic mismatches.

CHI'19 paper CHI'19 talk (slides) CHI'19 talk video

Project's team


(some of) our collaborators:


Shunichi Kasahara
(Sony CSL)

Jakub Limanowski
(UCL)

Karl Friston
(UCL)

Felix Blankenburg
(FU Berlin)

Klaus Grammann
(TU Berlin)

(see complete list of collaborators for this project in each paper's author list).