A conversation with prof. El Saddik

Entering Dr. El Saddik’s office in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science   requires two acts, one physical, and one metaphysical. First, you have to clear a space among all his awards, including C.C. Gotlieb medal, presented in May, 2013, by the Canadian Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, recognizing lifetime achievement in making important contributions to the field of computer engineering and science.  The second requirement is being prepared to take a quantum leap in imagining how humans can communicate over the internet.

Professor El Saddik conducts world-leading research in the field of haptics, work that is opening up stunning possibilities in medical applications, video-gaming, security, and e-learning. Haptics comes from the ancient Greek word haptikos, meaning ‘able to come in contact with.’  His work in haptics is focused on transmitting another dimension to digital communication, the sense of human touch over the internet.  For example, during a teleconference using haptic technology, participants can also exchange the equivalent of warm handshakes, or gentle taps on the shoulders. People at both ends of the conference wear clothing containing actuators, which convert digital signals sent via the internet into actions including pressure, temperature, and vibrations that simulate touch.

When combined with video-gaming technology, haptics can also be used to rehabilitate stroke victims to help them re-learn physical tasks and movements. In fact, medical applications are one of the most promising fields for development.   “With my students we talk about everything, and nothing,” Professor El Saddik says. “We start talking, and an idea gets generated. We work on something that was science fiction ten years ago. I have one of the largest laboratories in the university, with thirty graduate students. All of those who graduated are employed. This is for me the biggest reward.”

There are challenges to overcome, however. One of the biggest is how to transmit and synchronize the vast amount of two-way digital information fast enough so that people at both ends of a teleconference can feel sensations from one another in real time. That requires another layer of internet protocols to overcome delays, so that the experience is life-like. And, of course, there are security issues. “You don’t want to be touched by someone who is not allowed to touch you.” It’s a challenge that creates an opportunity, however.  Professor El Saddik says, “It’s what we call haptics biometrics, a means to recognize people, identify and authenticate access to systems.  Instead of using the iris, face recognition, or fingerprints, we use touch as a means of recognizing with whom we are talking.”  In the future, for example, on-site university examinations could completely disappear in favour of students’ writing exams remotely from any computer, anywhere. The haptics biometrics would identify the exam-writer constantly, in real time, by his or her specific characteristics of variables such as how much pressure is put on certain keys, and how fast the writer types.

While many of his ideas come mostly from discussions over a cup of coffee with his students, the professor’s research sometimes starts with his children and their friends. “They are digital savvy. We acquired our knowledge about the digital age, but they grow up with it. Five years ago when we were talking about touch screens, no one would understand it properly, but today children have iPads and Samsung Galaxies and Microsoft  Surface. So what’s next? Our goal here is to provide the ‘next’ before they even demand it. “

As a child, Professor El Saddik said he had a never-ending appetite for science fiction stories and films. And his next project is straight out of the movie, ‘Avatar.’ He wants to have teleconferencing with an added dimension, where remote participants appear as three dimensional holograms in one another’s space, and be able to touch one another using haptics. “We have some ideas on how to achieve this, so for the moment this is my big challenge: a touchable avatar.”   There is a moment of silence in the professor’s office while the magnitude of the idea and its implications take a moment to register, and one’s imagination attempts the quantum leap.  He has obviously seen this reaction before. “Exactly,” he says, smiling. There is a warm, no-actuators-required hand-shake, then Professor El Saddik heads back to his laboratory.