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Research on human movement could lead to development of 'assistive homes'

professor working with human movement simulations

Pavan Turaga, assistant professor in the ASU School of Arts, Media + Engineering in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, engages in research into the underlying qualities of human movement.
Photo courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

June 11, 2015

ASU professor awarded $536K NSF grant

Imagine living in a house that knows you and can anticipate your activities when you’re home. Imagine how this technology can help in the development of “assistive homes” for the elderly, and workspaces featuring built-in, ergonomic components that can improve workers’ health.

These are examples of long-term applications that could result from a $536,000 grant recently awarded to Pavan Turaga, an assistant professor in the ASU School of Arts, Media + Engineering in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, by the National Science Foundation.

Turaga received the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award, which, according to the National Science Foundation, “supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”

“This award demonstrates that Dr. Turaga’s career achievements place him among the most elite scholars and engineers in the country,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. “His work will fundamentally change how computers interact with human bodies to improve health and make our environments more responsive.”

Turaga, also an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, received the award in support of his research into the underlying qualities of human movement.

Titled “CAREER: Role of geometry in dynamical modeling of human movement: Applications to activity quality assessment across Euclidean, non-Euclidean, and function spaces,” the project expands on the central theme of Turaga’s academic focus.

“My PhD work had a lot to do with geometry applied to other imaging problems, and it was a natural extension to look at human movement through the lens of geometry,” Turaga explained.

Turaga, whose areas of expertise include computer vision and human activity analysis, notes that using such additional knowledge has classically been considered challenging in signal-processing literature, though “over the past several years, techniques from geometry have emerged as a possible lingua franca when considering signals with interesting physical constraints.”

Turaga points out that human movement recorded from sensors has traditionally been studied as yet another signal, yet human movement has many interesting properties that make it distinct from other signals.

“As an example, our skeletal structure imposes various constraints on how we move,” he explained. “Most of us cannot contort our bodies into any shape we want, but there is a range of postures to which we are constrained. If we can use such physical constraints while modeling the underlying signals we are recording, one can possibly improve techniques for signal-processing, storage, matching and retrieval.”

Over the course of the five-year project, Turaga aims to show how creative applications of mathematical principles can lead to discoveries that bear on the development of long-term therapies to address a wide range of health issues.

Although he sees the long-term impact of his research as mainly on the individual’s health care, Turaga emphasizes its potential for dual impact: “The CAREER agenda is meant to start a long-term research trajectory of both fundamental advances and its varied applications. The medical realm is only one possible application of this study.”