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Hong Z. Tan: The Science and Art of Conveying Information through Touch

Hong Z. Tan
February 25, 2022 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm
Gates 415 & via Zoom


Hong Z. Tan

Purdue University


In this presentation, I will describe current haptics research being conducted in the Haptic Interface Laboratory Research Lab at Purdue University, followed by a demo. The first project, TAPS, is concerned with the development of a haptic display for speech communication. We have long  known that speech communication through the skin is possible through research on natural methods of tactual speech communication used by individuals with severe hearing and/or visual impairments. Despite a long history of research, however, the development of sensory-substitution devices to support the communication of speech has proven to be a difficult task. We have now demonstrated that up to 500 English words can be learned at a rate of 1 word per minute on a TActile Phonemic Sleeve (TAPS) worn on the forearm. The device consists of 24 tactors under independent control for stimulation at the forearm. Key insights in designing distinctive haptic symbols, mapping all 39 English phonemes to the symbols, and training learners to recognize phonemes and words will be described. The second project, palmScape, is a tactile display for the palm that delivers calm and pleasant vibrotactile patterns evocative of familiar natural phenomena. I will first describe the display and then show results from an affective rating study which confirm that the sensations evoked by palmScape are visceral and delightful. The audience will have a chance to experience the palmScape system after the talk. While the first project focuses on the science of information transmission capacity of the sense of touch, the second project explores the art of hand-crafting calm and delightful tactile experiences. The significance of our work goes beyond tactile speech communication and sensory substitution. Imagine a world where touch serves as an additional or alternative channel of communication for people with all levels of sensory capabilities, and tactile emojis bring a smile to everyone’s face!


Hong Z. Tan is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering at Purdue University, with courtesy appointments in the School of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Psychological Sciences. She directs the Haptic Interface Research Lab that investigates the science and technology of displaying information through the sense of touch, taking a perception-based approach to solving engineering problems. Tan received her Bachelor's degree in Biomedical Engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and earned her Master and Doctorate degrees, both in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was a Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab before joining the faculty at Purdue University in 1998. Tan has held a McDonnell Visiting Fellowship at Oxford University, a Visiting Associate Professorship in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, a Guest Researcher position in the Institute of Life Science and Technology at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a Senior Researcher and Research Manager position at Microsoft Research Asia, and a Professorship at Beijing Normal University Faculty of Psychology. She was a recipient of the prestigious US National Science Foundation CAREER award and a Chinese National Natural Science Fund’s Distinguished (Overseas) Young Scholar. In addition to serving on numerous program committees, Tan was a co-organizer of the Haptics Symposium from 2003 to 2005, served as the founding chair of the IEEE Technical Committee on Haptics from 2006-2008, and co-chaired the World Haptics Conference in 2015. She served two terms as an Associate Editor of the IEEE Transactions on Haptics, and was the Editor-in-Chief of the World Haptics Conference Editorial Board from 2012-2015. Tan was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 2017 for her contributions to wearable haptics.