Don’t delay: Early engineering intro pays off

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend via Flickr.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

When Mohit Bhardwaj was a freshman in high school he traveled from his home in Lusaka, Zambia to Boston. with Lead America. For nine days, he and a group of 19 other students from around the globe studied leadership and engineering at Olin college. They learned to work on teams building Lego robots, popsicle stick bridges, and the classic egg drop device. Bhardwaj’s team designed a contraption that allowed their egg to spin gently to the ground without breaking. Four years later, he found himself back in Boston, a full-time student at Northeastern, using the same tactics to successfully guide a pumpkin from the roof of Columbus parking garage to the ground below.

This summer, after a quick visit with his family back home, Bhardwaj has been working with a couple of current high school students in the lab of mechanical and industrial engineering associate professor Rifat Sipahi. The students, Pellegrino Conte and Mariamawit Loulseged, were participating in the Young Scholars Program through the Center for STEM education. Neither of them knew how to code when they got here, but they quickly learned with the help of Bhardwaj and two graduate students, Payam Parsinejad and Payam Nia, from Sipahi’s lab.

This was fortunate because the students were tasked with designing a video game that would help Sipahi and his team understand how humans interact with delayed systems. We’ve all experienced it — you’re watching a “live stream” online of something that happened in real life five seconds ago. Your cell phone connection is a little wonky and it takes your friend a few extra moments to respond, irrationally triggering  your age-old fear of rejection as you wonder if your friend has just suddenly hung up on you.


President Joseph E. Aoun and Mohit Bhardwaj at an event to thank orientation leaders last week. Photo courtesy of Mohit Bhardwaj.

These are the kinds of things Sipahi’s lab is interested in. They want to understand these kinds of systems with delays–which manifest in everything from protein synthesis to operating the Mars rover from Earth–in order to better control them. Just as a bad cell connection could be the first step in a tumbling cascade of communication breakdown, triggered by your need to just feel wanted and accepted, delay can have some pretty bad consequences in other types of systems too–imagine how bad it would be if there were a delay in Bhardwaj’s pumpkin drop project. “You can never eliminate the delay,” Bhardwaj told me, “but you can try and make proper actions to keep things in control.”

The computer game he helped Conte and Loulseged develop is simple: a square moves on a random and continuous path around the screen and the player tries to “catch” it with a circle whose path he can control with a haptic device. The tricky part is that the circle can be a little lazy. In one iteration of the game, it takes it a half second for the circle to carry out any command the player gives it.

To overcome the serious difficulty of chasing something with a blindfold on, which is essentially what this game feels like, the programmers added in a “spring factor.” The center of the circle and the center of the square are attached by an invisible string (just like Jane Eyre and her beloved Mr. Rochester) that continually draws them back toward each other. The farther you pull the circle away, the more it wants to snap back to the square. The developers made it so the player can chose what ingredients she wants to play with: spring or no spring, delay or no delay, etc.

While they haven’t initiated a controlled study yet (they only just finished the game a few days ago), the team has already noticed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that playing the game with a delay and no spring factor is ridiculously frustrating, whereas with the added spring factor, the user does not get frustrated as much and can comfortably meet the game objectives, suggesting that the invisible spring smoothly assists the user, said Sipahi.

Sipahi’s lab is working to build various techniques into delay systems to keep them from going totally haywire. But when these systems involve some element of human interaction, the issues of psychology and behavior come into play. With games like this one, the team can study these elements and begin wiring them into their systems.