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UNB’s Scott Bateman Helps Humans And Computers Communicate

Myoelectric controls allow users to control robotic prosthetics with the subtle movement of other muscles. The problem with this is that it’s difficult for users to learn exactly how to control the movement of their prosthetics since the controls might mean flexing biceps to open robotic hands or flexing triceps to rotate robotic wrists.

That’s where Scott Bateman comes in. Bateman is the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Among his other research into technology that allows better collaboration between people and allows information to be visualized effectively, Bateman has teamed up with the Institute of Biomedical Engineering to develop games that help upper limb prosthetic wearers learn how to use myoelectric controls.

“The problem with those sensors is that it’s really hard to learn how to control your muscles in a consistent artificial way,” Bateman says. “We’re thinking about how we can design games that will allow people to train in their home while they’re waiting for their prosthetic to be built because it’s an intensive process, this training process to get people to learn how to use their body in this new way.”

What better way to get people into learning than with games? With his particular background, Bateman is the one to make it happen. He understands the importance of designing and building intuitive software that works well and just makes sense.

Through this work, Bateman says he’s able to combine experience with collaboration through human-computer interaction (HCI) as well as information visualization, which allows people to understand what’s being communicated to them explore and discover new insights through data.

“HCI is really understanding what people can do, what their capabilities are, what their real needs are, how they conduct their work tasks,” Bateman says. “If you’re trying to solve a problem with regards to their work tasks or how their everyday life goes then you think carefully about what you’ve learned and how to design technology that’s going to fit into that daily life and address those problems directly in the simplest, most intuitive way possible.”

Bateman says that now is an interesting time for researchers because what they are doing is more similar to how companies build new products than it has been in the past. The line between research and an actual product getting put into use is a lot more direct.

“In the startup world one of the first things you do is a proof of concept for a technology or a new product,” he says. “That’s something we’ve always done in the type of research we do. Usually we stop at the proof of concept phase and we don’t take it any further but that ends up coinciding very nicely for new startups.”

“Oftentimes we have expertise and know-how and resources that can allow us to quickly do some proof of concept type work and we can hand that over to a new company that might be interested in taking that to market or using that to pursue funding.”

Right now, Bateman and his team have put together a prototype of the game and will be working this summer with potential users to get feedback and other game possibilities. He says researchers don’t always get the opportunity to have such direct communication.

This work is important to Bateman because while there’s often a lot of excitement about myoelectric controlled prosthetics initially, users can get frustrated and abandon the technology if they’re having a hard time learning how to use it. Bateman wants to get to a point where new prosthetic wearers can learn by having fun and keep using the technology to make their lives a bit easier.

“Whether it’s static or myoelectric controlled robotic arms, there’s a really high abandonment rate of these things,” he says. “Because of the resource constraints, there’s not a lot of support and this is true the world over. Our clinic provides one of the best supports in terms of helping people when they get their prosthetics and getting them up to speed on how to use them but it could still be done better. We need more contact and they need more training.”