Tracking Movements to Find Answers

Sarah Mandel '15, Carrie Cabush '15, (Alex Cates '15 pictured on monitor), Summer Bottini '14, Mahima Karki '14
Sarah Mandel '15, Carrie Cabush '15, (Alex Cates '15 pictured on monitor), Summer Bottini '14, Mahima Karki '14

Picking up a spoon to stir your morning coffee seems uncomplicated enough, right? We simply see the object and move our hand until it is close enough to grab it. But how much harder does it become if the object gets smaller or farther away from us? Or what happens when we start using our non-dominant hand? Perhaps most of us could make an educated guess at how much harder it would make the task, but Paul Fitts took it one step further beyond just estimating.

Fitts created his own equation, known as Fitts’ Law, which allows us to determine how long it will take to complete a relatively simple task. The model states that the time required to move our hands from one point to another is a function of the distance to and size of the target. The law tends to hold in real-world settings and is very well supported, given the large collection of research on the topic.

This law, however, seems to hold true only to a certain point. Summer Bottini ’14, Carrie Cabush ’15, Alexander Cates ’15, Mahima Karki ’14 and Sarah Mandel ’15 are hoping to find to what extent Fitts’ Law holds and when it breaks down. The group will be examining a more complex relationship between the distance to the target and the size of that target as well as issues involving extreme conditions.

Hamilton students have studied the law before and observed inconsistencies between their own data and what Fitts’ Law predicted. This has led more students to research what these inconsistencies were and how they occurred. Elin Lantz ’13 worked with Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Jonathan Vaughan on her thesis, and now this group of students is continuing the research.

Motion-tracking armbands are placed on participants, and they are then handed two wands that contain accelerometers and other technologies. The participants are asked to perform a collection of tasks while a computerized voice guides them through the steps of the experiment. The complicated process of analysis using programs like MatLab begins once this data is collected.

Bottini said that the research performed in the field is applicable to robotics. This research also relates to computer interfaces, where programmers try to make the interface an extension of the user. Cabush explained that, in a world that is becoming more dependent on technology, we can only advance so far without a complete understanding of our own movements and processes.

Karki ’14 naturally uses her left hand for everyday tasks. She was not forced to do so by her parents or coaches; her brain merely told her that it was the more comfortable side to use. This stimulated her interest in the subject, to discover what in her brain told her to use a side than that chosen by the majority of the population.

The group wanted to work with Vaughan, who is well established within the field of motor functions. Professors may assign readings on similar published studies during the school year, but the summer offers students the opportunity to experience a more complete research experience - from designing a study and conducting experiments to preparing a paper for presentation and/or publishing. The researchers are also anxious to gain experience speaking at the 2013 Psychonomic Society Annual Scientific Meeting in Toronto, Canada, this November.

The students manage to keep themselves busy once their day in the lab is finished. Karki is a member of HEAT, a student organized dance team, and the South Asian Student Association. Bottini is a member of the women’s softball team. Cabush is the founder of the International Justice Mission, a participant in the Active Minds Club and leads a small Bible study. Mandel, who has always been passionate about singing, spends her time performing with the choir and Duelly Noted, an a capella music group.

Bottini is a graduate of Millbrook High School (NY). Cabush is a graduate of Morristown High School (NJ). Cates is a graduate of Acton-Boxborough Regional High School (Mass.). Karki is a graduate of Somerville High School (MA). Mandel is a graduate of Unionville High School (Pa.).

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