A machine that coaches you to draw ?
Good news for people without natural born talent: You don’t need it. Or at least you won’t in the future—DUN DUN DUNNNNN! By then, technology will make up for our humanoid shortcomings. Can’t play the piano? No problem; a glove will force your fingers to play that passage you can’t seem nail. Not handy with a pen? That’s an easy fix thanks to a robotically controlled accessory that will guide your hand to sketch a perfect circle.
This is hyperbole, but only slightly, as a new project from designer/engineer Saurabh Datta proves. For his thesis project at Copenhagen’s Institute of Interaction Design, Datta created a series of devices that teach people simple tasks like tapping a piano key or drawing basic shapes by using forced haptic feedback. In other words, you don’t control Datta’s machines, they control you.
Datta, a civil engineer by trade, began the project as a way to investigate how he could learn to play the piano with the help of a machine.
He wondered: If we gave more agency to the machines in our lives, could they help us improve certain skills by building muscle memory?
Teacher, for example, is a machine that coaches you to draw by forcing your hand to perform certain motions.
The thinking goes, repeat the task enough times and eventually your hand will remember how to do it on its own. His earlier Forced Finger project similarly used forced haptic feedback to control his index finger; a robotic lever raises and lowers the finger to hit certain keys on a piano. In both cases the machine uses your extremity like an inanimate tool rather than the complex and capable mechanism that it is.
These prototypes are crude (Datta built them in a week), and they’re not meant to be used as actual tools. Rather they’re a mode to examine how machines and humans might interact with each other in the future.
“The aim of this system and software was to understand the negotiations people make when machine and humans have different perspective and same goal,” Datta writes. “How they complement each other or counter each other.”
In this case, there’s little negotiation at play. Datta’s machines were built to overrule human input as an extreme way to test how much control we should give to the machines in our lives. The designer found that most people were uncomfortable when the machine was in complete control.
They’d fight against the forced haptic feedback, adjusting their wrist and hand position to make it more comfortable for themselves. In another test, Datta’s machines would record the user’s motion and then repeat it over and over using forced feedback. This proved to be a good compromise—as the machine learned more about how humans moved, it was more capable of making human-centered decisions. You can read more about his findings on the project page.
Datta wants to use the findings from his experiments to build guidelines for designing future haptic interactions. It comes at a relevant time, as machines are making decisions on our behalf to an ever-increasing extent. You can already see the push and pull between humans and machines at play in autonomous vehicles.
The fact is, technology has always held the promise of augmenting our human abilities and making our lives easier. And that’s great! Computers can be as gentle and persuasive teachers. But they also have the power to be creepy and overpowering. There’s a fine line between helpful and uncanny. As these systems become more common in our world, experiments like Datta’s can help us understand the nuances of the physical relationship between human and machine.