Restoring that Missing Feeling in Touch Technology

We don’t understand how our fingers feel material softness — for example, how do we know a peach is ripe? Touch permeates our lives, yet we don’t design technology to use our natural ability to differentiate objects. Chang Xu, a systems engineering Ph.D. student working in associate professor Greg Gerling’s Touch Lab, is studying the mechanisms underlying our sense of touch in the natural world to improve technologies ranging from consumer electronics to prosthetic hands and robotic-assisted surgery.

Systems engineering Ph.D. student Chang Xu studies how we perceive material softness through our sense of touch as part of research to understand how people interface with machines.

Q. What are you trying to do with your research?

A. How do we differentiate soft objects by touch, as we do in picking ripe fruits at the grocery store? The sense of touch is essential and permeates our daily lives. My work seeks to understand mechanisms that underlie our sense of touch in the natural world. Specifically, I’m studying how tactile contact cues could optimally encode our perception of material softness.

Q. What is the societal impact of the work? If you are successful, what difference will it make?

A. My research could help bring back touch where it is missing, or enhance our current capabilities. In particular, my work will impact scientists and engineers across academia and industry who are developing next-generation wearable interfaces. In addition to direct applications in augmented and virtual reality and consumer electronics, my work may aid those developing neural prosthetic hands, robotic-assisted surgery and clinician training.

Q. What do you like about working on this research, or what excites you about it?

A.There are so many interesting aspects with our sense of touch, like skin mechanics, neurophysiology and psychology. We’re exploring unknown elements wherever the human needs and next questions direct us. I’m continually learning new engineering methodologies and approaches and this equips me with a multidisciplinary skill set.

Q. What do you like about studying systems engineering and working in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at UVA?

A. I enjoy working in such a multidisciplinary, diverse and inclusive environment created at UVA Engineering. You can find help and resources across department boundaries, and continuing research collaborations with other schools at UVA, and even beyond UVA with collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, and in Sweden and France.

"There are so many interesting aspects with our sense of touch, like skin mechanics, neurophysiology and psychology. We’re exploring unknown elements wherever the human needs and next questions direct us."

Chang Xu, Ph.D. Student