The authors describe two sets of experiments that examine the ability of vibrotactile encoding of simple position error and combined object states (calculated from an optimal controller) to enhance performance of reaching and manipulation tasks in healthy human adults. The goal of the first experiment (tracking) was to follow a moving target with a cursor on a computer screen. Visual and/or vibrotactile cues were provided in this experiment, and vibrotactile feedback was redundant with visual feedback in that it did not encode any information above and beyond what was already available via vision. After only 10 minutes of practice using vibrotactile feedback to guide performance, subjects tracked the moving target with response latency and movement accuracy values approaching those observed under visually guided reaching. Unlike previous reports on multisensory enhancement, combining vibrotactile and visual feedback of performance errors conferred neither positive nor negative effects on task performance. In the second experiment (balancing), vibrotactile feedback encoded a corrective motor command as a linear combination of object states (derived from a linear-quadratic regulator implementing a trade-off between kinematic and energetic performance) to teach subjects how to balance a simulated inverted pendulum. Here, the tactile feedback signal differed from visual feedback in that it provided information that was not readily available from visual feedback alone. Immediately after applying this novel “goal-aware” vibrotactile feedback, time to failure was improved by a factor of three. Additionally, the effect of vibrotactile training persisted after the feedback was removed.
These results suggest that vibrotactile encoding of appropriate combinations of state information may be an effective form of augmented sensory feedback that can be applied, among other purposes, to compensate for lost or compromised proprioception as commonly observed, for example, in stroke survivors.