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Designing Devices to Extend the Body

Brent Gillespie
Department of Mechanical Engineering University of Michigan

December 3, 2015 at  3:00 PM
McConnell Engineering Room 437


Humans possess an uncanny ability to wield tools to extend their body and enhance their faculties. Knowing their own actions and monitoring what they feel, tool users harness the coupled dynamics of body, tool, and environment to carry out their aims. These observations lead naturally to a consideration of the role of the mechanics of muscle and body. If we could understand how the brain solves control problems involving the mechanics of the body and wielded tools, we might be in a better position to design robotic devices that function as extensions of the body. In the HaptiX lab at the University of Michigan, we seek to quantify the effects of sensory feedback and decipher the use of feedforward, feedback, and adaptive control in human motor behavior. We ask human subjects to perform simple tasks in virtual environments rendered through custom-designed haptic devices while occasionally introducing surprising dynamics and perturbations. Our results quantify the value of modest mechanical impedance and dynamic coupling in the design of devices intended for human use. The design directives that we extract from these results are quite in opposition to current trends in human-computer interface, where touch screens and motion tracking devices are not at all impedance-matched and present visually rich but haptically impoverished windows into the information world. I will also introduce wearable robotic devices that employ fluid power, series elastic actuation, and soft actuator technology to create upper limb prosthetics, wearable robots for rehabilitation, instruments for musical expression, and interfaces to remote and virtual environments.


Brent Gillespie completed his undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering at UC Davis in 1986 and subsequently spent four years working in Silicon Valley while completing a Masters in Piano Performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He completed a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in 1996 and a postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University in 1999. He then joined the department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, where he conducts research on manual control interfaces and wearable robots. He has served as an associate editor for the IEEE Transactions on Haptics and helped organize the 2012 conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression. His awards include the 2001 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the 2013 University of Michigan Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize.