Touch Perception Research Emerging Field

Mounia Ziat
Mounia ZiatEbbinghaus illusion
Ebbinghaus illusion

MARQUETTE, Mich.--A head-mounted display transports a subject to a virtual environment that she can reach out and touch, testing her perception of hot and cold temperatures. Using EEG as a brain-computer interface enables someone to move a cursor with his mental activity; no hands required. A piano player can identify Beethoven’s 5th Symphony not by sound, but through fingertip vibrations. Ceramics students deprived of either vision, touch or the audible sound of the spinning wheel perform just as well throwing pottery, but the height of their vessels is noticeably impacted. In a tactile approach to the Ebbinghaus visual illusion, fingers pass over raised dots to see if touch alone can detect that the inner circles are in fact the same size, despite the disparate size of the dots surrounding them.

These five research projects under the direction of NMU psychology professor Mounia Ziat were demonstrated or presented this week at the IEEE Haptics Symposium 2014 in Houston, Texas. All involve students.

“Haptic (touch) perception is an emerging field and relatively new compared to vision or auditory research,” said Ziat, an Algerian native who completed her master’s and doctorate in cognitive sciences in France, followed by postdoctoral research in Canada. “It helps build an understanding of how humans interact with the world and their environment. I use technology to understand the behavioral and neural basis of human perception, which, in turn, can lead to improvements in how products are designed. My approach is not from one perspective, but very multidisciplinary. Many fields intersect: psychology, neuroscience, psychophysics, computer science and engineering. I am originally an electronics engineer.”

Reflecting that approach, Ziat collaborates with other departments and universities on her research. One project revolved around a grid table created by a human-centered design major and enhanced to become “InGrid” with the help of two computer science students. People seated at the table can place their iPads at any location to work independently in private mode or lay them flat to interact with other devices that are similarly positioned. They can flick images, data and video between screens with a sweep of the hand (see the video). Ziat and the students presented their work in Paris last year at the premier international conference on human-computer interaction.

Ziat has partnered with researchers from France to explore affective computing, or how to trigger emotions via technology. She said, “It may sound science fiction, but this field is quickly emerging.” The study compares the emotional and physiological responses to compressed air blown gently on skin to mimic a soft caress with that of human touch. A doctoral student from France spent a month at NMU working on the project. Ziat is also collaborating with a Canadian university on a driving simulator project that uses EEG to measure driver fatigue. She has secured funds for another project with the simulator that's relevant to winter driving.

“During a snow storm, visibility is very low, so sometimes drivers have to rely on rumble strips to realize they are going off course,” she said. “The strips alert us by both sound and vibrations. Our goal is to understand how these auditory and haptic inputs are integrated to form a single perception.”

Another research project with practical implications was nominated for best demo at the 2013 World Haptics Conference. A “haptic hallucination sleeve” resembling a blood-pressure cuff is placed on the subject’s forearm to simulate the sensations of crawling insects on or beneath the skin. This may offer insight on those who suffer hallucinations, such as with schizophrenia or depression.

Ziat describes the 25 students in her lab as “admirable and very motivated.” A mechanical engineering technology major recently joined the group, expanding the mix of disciplines. She is quick to credit her own colleagues in psychology and representatives of the following departments or offices who have supported her research: mathematics and computer science; art and design; grants and research; graduate education and research; and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director