Learning by ‘enaction’, started when the first proto-human discovered that a bone could be a tool. But it is practice that is marginalised in developed societies, as convenience and technology lure people from craftwork and physical labour.Today, knowledge mediated by computers, is transmitted symbolically through writing, or iconically with pictures.
“Four years ago when we started, there was no research community for IT-assisted, enactive knowledge,” says Enactive’s coordinator Professor Massimo Bergamasco. Professor of Mechanics of Robots and Virtual Environment at Scuola Superiore S.Anna. Bergamasco is currently the Coordinator of the PERCRO laboratory whose motto is "Simultaneous Presence, Telepresence and Virtual Presence."
“There were relatively isolated communities in experimental psychology and neuroscience, but there was nothing that linked those fields with specialists in computer science, or multimedia, or robotics.” Now there is a society, a conference and one of the network’s partners is setting up a lab dedicated to this research.
It is easy to imagine potential applications like becoming a carpenterbeing shown the settings for the virtual tools and working with different types of virtual wood, should mean with persistance you would become a fully skilled craftsman.
In a separate EU-funded project, called HAPTEX, researchers have successfully created the ‘feel’ of a virtual fabric. Its texture, strength and elasticity are all transmitted via a glove. First time users are really surprised at how real this virtual fabric feels.
Multinational haptic work with ENABLE
In September ComputeScotland featured Queen's University, Belfast work on a future where online shoppers can feel the products they want to buy; where people playing interactive games can immediately feel the force of an impact. In addition to opening up a whole array of new opportunities for industries such as electronic gaming, the new technology also promises to permit blind and visually impaired people to access the internet in a way they cannot currently undertake.
Professor Alan Marshall and his colleagues in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are a few months into their three year working on new network architectures to support the addition of other senses, particularly that of ‘touch’.
At present, almost all haptic devices are only capable of being connected to a single stand-alone system. Professor Marshall and his partners, including BT(UK), Immersion (USA) and HandshakeVR (Canada), hope to develop networks to increase the user’s immersion in a virtual environment by allowing them not only to see but also to touch the environment around them.
It is hoped users will also be able to share these sensations with fellow users in numerous locations. The study also aims to overcome the challenge of maintaining a consistent view of the shared information in the face of inevitable network delays and variable bandwidth.
“We are already leading a new project entitled ENABLED concerning the delivery of web content to blind and visually impaired and the potential applications made possible by the architectures coming out of this new study will be huge, says Professor Marshall.
Professor Bergamasco highlights other potential applications. “We see concepts in different fields, like rehabilitation, surgery, industrial training, space exploration. The number of potential applications is virtually limitless.”
"Imagine a surgeon practicing a delicate procedure on a virtual patient, until he or she becomes expert. Or it may be possible to model an individual patient and practise a particularly tricky operation virtually, before trying the real thing. It is all built on the idea that we learn better by doing something than by reading about it, or even watching a video."
Creating computer-assisted, enactive devices will provide tremendous tools to disciplines like experimental psychology and neuroscience. Imagine an interface that hears what you say and responds appropriately.
Will you learn better, faster, or not? What does ‘whole body’ education tell us about human psychology, evolution and learning mechanisms? And what new potential enactive applications will those experimental discoveries enable?
We do know that, in the shorter term, it will be discoveries made through a combination of haptic devices, audio and video. Haptic devices are interfaces that provide a physical feedback to the user. Typically they appear, in a very primitive application, with video game control pads. The pad shakes each time an impact occurs on screen, for instance.
There are far more sophisticated devices, however, like the haptic glove created by Haptex. Combined with audio and vision, haptic devices can provide uncannily realistic impressions of reality.
“Most of the work within the next few years focuses on audio, vision and touch, there is no real work on taste or smell yet. Different groups are looking at different things, like audio with haptics, video with haptics or combinations... The network has really inspired a lot of activity,” explains Bergamasco. “In fact, the Network of Excellence was a superb platform to promote this field,” he reveals. “We had 25 groups, research institutes, mostly in Europe but with some in the USA and Canada, and the degree of interaction between them now is amazing.”
ENABLE and Enactive with its Network of Excellence look set to expand rapidly.