Stuttgart – Some of the world’s most promising young researchers in the fields of haptics, robotics, and machine learning from institutions such as Stanford University, Korea University, and Johns Hopkins University have joined the Haptic Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems for a research stay abroad. Youngeun Lee, Cara Nuñez, Jeong-Hyun Cho, and Neha Thomas have recently been awarded prestigious fellowships to fund their time in Germany. The four of them see Katherine J. Kuchenbecker’s Stuttgart lab as the best location worldwide for their respective research topics. Dr. Kuchenbecker is one of the world’s leading scientists in the field of haptics; her research focuses on bridging the gap between the digital and physical world through the sense of touch.
Over the course of her career, Kuchenbecker has built a vibrant research environment by combining elements of neuroscience, machine learning, engineering, and robotics to uncover the underlying principles of haptic interaction. Her team has invented state-of-the- art human-computer, human-machine, and human-robot systems that incorporate this often-neglected sense.
“I met Katherine at the Haptics Symposium in San Francisco in 2018. I came to Stuttgart because I knew Katherine would push me to make progress and maybe even make a significant contribution to the field”, says Cara Nuñez, who is doing her Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Stanford University. Nuñez holds a one-year research fellowship from the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, DAAD). Her research focuses on developing a wearable haptic device that provides directional cues to people who are visually impaired. “The idea is to develop a wearable device that can relay directional cues and other information about the surrounding environment so it can serve as a stand-alone assistive device,” explains Nuñez. “Users will not need to use a cane or a guide dog. While the motivation is to develop a device that can be used by persons with visual impairments, we also believe that the device will also be useful for other applications, such as providing directions to users while walking, biking, or driving so that their focus and attention can be on performing the task instead of getting distracted while looking at or listening to instructions.”
“Katherine’s lab and department are very well suited to my research goals”, says Neha Thomas, who came to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. She is doing her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on haptics for upper limb prosthetics. Her aim is to give people who have had an arm amputated the ability to feel what is happening between the prosthetic hand and its environment. “Is the grip strong enough to keep an object from slipping? Some prosthetics have a smart algorithm that detects slippage and automatically increases the grip force. That can be a problem when handling fragile objects such as eggs. In Katherine’s department, my aim is to explore combining haptic feedback with smart algorithms to make haptic devices intelligent. I haven’t done this before – machine learning is a new area for me. It’s great that some people have this expertise in the lab, and I can learn from them.”
Jeong-Hyun Cho chose Stuttgart for his research stay abroad for the same reason. Cho studies Brain and Cognitive Engineering at Korea University in Seoul. He is in Germany on a scholarship provided by the Korean government for master’s or Ph.D. students in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). “The signal processing technology of brain engineering is very similar to signal processing in haptics”, he says. Cho is working on a project with one of the lab’s postdocs, Hasti Seifi, on assessing the activity of surgeons in training. “The surgeon uses an endoscope for a procedure, for instance. An algorithm then determines whether the activity is correct or not. We can automatically assess the trainee’s skill. And I am also very interested in machine learning. Katherine’s department combines all this knowledge and expertise.”
Youngeun Lee, who has received the same scholarship as Cho, also studies Brain and Cognitive Engineering at Korea University. “I study brain engineering in South Korea, which is related to machine learning and signal processing. It is really interesting for me to explore the combination of machine learning and haptics in Katherine’s department. I am also learning a lot about the research process, from writing and doing experiments to debating with others. Being here has been a great opportunity to broaden my mind”, she says.
While world-class expertise and research excellence brought the students to southwestern Germany, all four of them agree that the region has a great deal to offer beyond the walls of the MPI-IS. “It is a great place! Getting around is so convenient, and nature is easy to get to. If I wanted to go hiking in the US, I would need a car. Here, I can just hop on public transport and I’m in the Black Forest in no time”, says Neha Thomas. For Cara Nuñez, the brilliant fall colors in and around the city are not the only thing that makes Stuttgart attractive: she also gets excited about things like a local cabbage festival. Clearly, it’s not just the Germans who love their sauerkraut.
From left to right: Cara Nuñez, Jeong-Hyun Cho, Neha Thomas, and Youngeun Lee