IEEE World Haptics 2017

Q&A with Michael Wiertlewski

TCH Early Career Award Recipient 2017

Congratulations to Dr. Michael Wiertlewski who received the TCH Early Career Award at the World Haptics 2017 Conference in Munich, Germany for his work on ultrasonic friction vibration. The award recognizes outstanding contributions from haptic community members in the earlier stages of their career.

Dr. Wiertlewski is a Research Scientist at CNRS associated with the Biorobotics group of the Aix-Marseille University. He has acted as Associate Editor for the Eurohaptics and Worldhaptics conferences since 2015. He completed his Ph.D. at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie where he studied vibratory signals responsible for the tactile perception of texture and received the recognition of the Eurohaptic Society PhD Award and the Best Thesis award from the Groupement de Recherche (GdR) Robotique. After, he joined the Neuroscience and Robotics (NxR) lab at Northwestern University under the mentorship of J. Edward Colgate where he studied the physics of ultrasonic friction modulation until 2014.

Refer to his biography for a full list of accomplishments.

What projects are you working on that you are excited to share?

MW: We were approached by the car company, Peugeot, to incorporate haptic feedback inside cars with touchscreens. The main drawback with modern cars using touch displays is that people spend more time looking at the screen and not the road. You need lateral motion to feel a response in devices which were meant to be explored with touch. Using ultrasonic vibration technology we found that changing the friction in real time by vibrating the glass gives a similar sensation even though there is no normal frictional force being applied. Since then, we have been trying to come up with different ways the user can move, how we can bias that motion, and how we can guide the motion of the finger.

Why is your research important? What do you want to achieve with your research?

MW: There’s a hole in the study of friction vibration. We still have so many questions to try to answer about the phenomenon and how it applies to haptics. The applications come after the study though. I try to stay on the curious side but I’m really happy to see applications for these ideas grow over time.

What are the “big” issues in your research area?

MW: I want to push the limits to what can be rendered using surface haptics. We need to aim for fidelity through classical engineering methods by looking into distortion and bandwidth. We also need to look at the phenomenon itself such as how to drive the fingers or how the friction forces are actually modulated. Those are challenging problems involving biomechanics, tribology, friction science, and perception but it’s getting clearer by the year with all the researchers working on it.

What has been your most surprising finding?

MW: The ultrasonic click. It started as an educated guess. While working on a friction-varying machine, I realized I could still feel transient changes in vibration amplitude when my finger was not moving. There wasn’t anything mentioned in the literature about it.

What is your favorite aspect of your research?

MW: I really like when you have that “Aha!” moment. You struggle on a question and it never seems to be solvable then you find that angle that gives you a whole new light on the problem. Those “Aha!” moment sometimes last a long time and bring in a new perspectives.

Day-to-day though I wish I had a more time to tinker. That’s the job of my students now. I still try to put in 1-2 hours per week for mechanical CAD or troubleshooting electronics. Maybe one day I’ll take a sabbatical just to tinker.

Why did you become a scientist?

MW: I started my career at a small company working on robotics. My job felt like playing with Legos where you buy one thing and buy something else, stick them together, then hope it works for the client. You couldn’t afford to have questions or spend a year trying to find an answer. Since a university hosted the company, I got to talk to the researchers that were working on interesting applications. When I had opportunity for research, I jumped on it.

What drew you into the field of haptics?

MW: I did an internship under the supervision of Ramiro Velazquez working on interfaces for the blind using heat-shaping alloys. I was trained in computer vision and I felt it would take years before I found anything new. Everything seemed to have already been done in the field whereas haptics still had so many unanswered questions. So far I have not been disappointed in the change.

What would you say are the next frontiers in haptics?

MW: Many people are trying to tackle the application side. With more of these types of devices in people’s hands, we will get more questions that researchers haven’t even thought of yet and more answers will arise.