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Patent Goes to Psychology Professor Experimenting with Sense-of-Touch Communications

Christopher Brill with touch communication subject

For Old Dominion University psychologist Christopher Brill, touch is the new avenue of communications, especially for soldiers, firefighters and athletes who may have trouble receiving a message via sight or sound.

Imagine an NFL quarterback wearing a belt or a vest with a half dozen tiny electronic devices attached to it. A game is being played in a domed stadium where the noise interferes with audio transmissions. (The NFL allows one-way communication from the coach to the quarterback, who has a radio receiver in his helmet).

With this newfangled, wireless tactile system, however, when the coach has a message to pass along, he remotely activates one of the tiny devices, say, near the quarterback's navel, and it vibrates to get the player's attention. Then in quick succession, three more devices on the player's stomach and lower back tap out a message in something akin to Morse Code: on the next snap, the coach wants the team to execute a particular pass play.

If the NFL would allow it, the quarterback could tap one of the devices in order to answer "Roger," or tap out a coded message on several of the devices saying he prefers another play. In addition, the devices would be capable of tracking things such as heartbeat and respiration that could provide telltale information about the quarterback's capabilities at any particular moment.

This scenario helps to describe new communication systems that Brill and colleagues in Florida have been working on for seven years. The systems take advantage of a simple fact about human sensory perception: tactile pathways are, as Brill says, "always on."

The work resulted in late April in the research team receiving a U.S. patent for the "Electromagnetic Field Tactile Display Interface and Biosensor."

Brill, who joined the ODU faculty last year as an assistant professor in human factors psychology, worked on the project and actually wrote the patent application as a graduate student and postgraduate researcher at the University of Central Florida.

The work started at the behest of the U.S. military, which wanted a simple electronic means of communication similar to the hand-arm signals commonly used now by soldiers in the field. Hand signals are used because they do not require special equipment, they do not draw the enemy's attention the way light emissions or radio "noise" would, and they can be transmitted to someone successfully even in the roar of war, or to a soldier wearing earplugs.

Nevertheless, hand signals aren't very effective at night or if line-of-sight is blocked for some other reason. Also, the amount of information that can be transmitted is very limited.

In the field, the military has issued combatant devices that have visual displays or provide auditory alarms. But Brill said soldiers found them cumbersome to use. "These are people who break a pencil off to a stub because they want to limit the weight of what they're carrying," he explained. "And, besides, who wants to be punching up a visual display when bullets are flying by.

"Battlefield soldiers have lots of sights and sounds to keep up with. They don't need more visual or auditory prompts," Brill added. "A visual display only works if you are looking at it and an audio message only comes through if you can hear it. Sometimes the only channel that remains is touch."

Brill and Richard Gilson, his mentor at Central Florida and another member of the team that received the patent, have done extensive research on the potential of tactile communications.

For instance, they have found that people respond faster and more accurately to tactile communication compared to surround-sound audio cues. However, too many devices vibrating at too many spots on the body can make messages difficult to read. To make the message codes readable, the person receiving the vibrations must be able to immediately identify the source of the sensation. When the vibrators are too close together, the individual can't tell which one is going off.

But most of their findings show advantageous uses for tactile communications, especially for basic communications.

Brill said a major advantage is that humans can often receive tactile communications even when they have mental overload or are extremely stressed. In one experiment, soldiers fired at targets based on 1) auditory commands, 2) auditory/visual commands that required decoding and 3) tactile commands. The reaction times, respectively, were 2.1 seconds, 4.2 seconds and 1.29 seconds.

The system is capable of sending commands to many people at once, offering another significant advantage over hand signals. It can take several seconds or even minutes to communicate critical information via arm signals. The wireless tactile display communicates instantaneously. Brill explained, "It's flexible. You can communicate to a single soldier or an entire brigade."

One goal of the research team has been to make coded sequences of vibrations that somehow would resemble arm signals soldiers already know. For example, a "rally point" signal consisting of an arm rotating in circular motion was mimicked by a sequence of vibrations moving in a circle around the soldier's waist. "Soldiers felt it was intuitive," Brill said.

His focus on intuitive design paid off. He reported it only takes a couple of minutes to train someone how to use the system.

Other tactile communications devices had been developed prior to the work of the Central Florida team, but the patent received by Brill and his colleagues is for a fine-tuned system in which the stimulators themselves are also input devices. This would be the way the quarterback could tap stimulators on his vest to send a message back to his coach. The stimulators also serve as biosensors, able to track the physical well-being of the wearer. Brill summarized it, "We're closing the loop to sense the sensor," - the "sensor" being the tactile devices as well as the person wearing them.

The patent document lists numerous potential uses of the invention. Firefighters are obvious candidates, given their need for basic communications inside buildings with roaring fires and thick smoke.

Other potential uses, the researchers believe, would be to augment videogames, GPS systems in cars (a vibration on your left shoulder means to turn left) and even aids for the disabled. In addition to football quarterbacks, the inventors envision the tactile systems replacing the well-known hand signals given by baseball managers and coaches to their players.

Brill suggested that people with sensory disabilities could receive tactile messages when their home phones ring. Not only would the message alert them to the call, but also buzz out a sequence that would provide Caller ID.

Despite its potential, Brill cautions that tactile displays should not be viewed as a one-size-fits-all solution to all communication problems. He said, "The greatest advantage of communicating by touch is its power to capture your attention when other signals cannot. "

This article was posted on: June 9, 2010

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