Faces of UMSI: Yu-Jen Lin

Crossing boundaries is nothing new for UMSI PhD student Yu-Jen Lin: His academic and professional projects have seen him integrate art with engineering, design with assistive technology, and, most recently, the digital with the physical.

Yu-Jen studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at National Taiwan University, but even then, his interests had an artistic bent. “One of my friends called me an art engineer,” he jokes.

This played a role during his time as a software engineer at the Techart Group in Taipei. There, he combined his artistic tendencies with his engineering know-how to help create displays showcasing companies’ technological developments at expositions.

As a software engineer, though, the focus was on the technical aspects of design, not the human ones, an area Yu-Jen wanted to explore further in the MSI program in human-computer interaction, or HCI, at UMSI.

Sile O’Modhrain, an associate professor at UMSI and at the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance, encouraged him to continue with doctoral studies after he took two of her classes and worked with her on a project that created an augmented environment to enable visually impaired people to experience artwork in a new way. 

As a PhD student, he has continued exploring how different sensory input can broaden the world for different groups of people. One of these projects has been Social Sensory Surface (SSS), a collaboration with O’Modhrain and professors and others in the U-M Colleges of Engineering and Architecture. SSS worked to develop large-scale interactive tactile interfaces to help children with autism spectrum disorder develop fine and gross motor skills; the system has since been installed in a therapy center.

Yu-Jen’s current project, with haptic devices, also involves touch. Haptic devices interact with users by recreating the sense of touch through force, vibrations or motions. For example, pressing harder on an icon might cause it to vibrate, as on newer iPhone models, or a user rotating a virtual knob might feel the knob clicking, as on some Samsung devices.

This leads to a deeper experience than when using a typical device, he says. “When we interact with the device, we don’t get any feedback, so the boundary between the digital world and real world is obvious,” he says. “I want to blur those line and make the experience more immersive.”

While the technology is still emerging, in the future, such devices might, for example, enable people shopping for clothes online to feel the texture of the fabric through the haptic systems on their smartphones, he adds.

Yu-Jen is working on creating applications that would work on haptic devices like those under development by Tanvas, a company founded by two professors from Northwestern University. His most recent project, looking at whether the haptic interface can enable people, such as drivers or runners, to interact with a device without visual impact, is the subject of a paper he recently submitted to an upcoming conference, Eurohaptic.

Working on cutting-edge technology can be both frustrating and exciting, says Yu-Jen.

“It’s exciting because I’m developing new technology and hopefully people will someday use this technology,” he says. 

The frustration, though, also comes from the technology’s newness, he adds.

“When we work on other things, we can stand on the shoulders of giants, but in this one, we’re trying to become a giant.”