Provancher Receives NSF Early CAREER Award

July 1, 2008

Will Provancher

Will ProvancherWe are proud to announce that mechanical engineering assistant professor William Provancher, is the recipient of the prestigious NSF Early CAREER Award for his research, “HCC: Haptic Guidance Systems.” Dr. Provancher’s goal

in this project is to advance the state-of-the-art of haptics research, which has to date centered primarily on the use of point-based force-feedback devices, by exploring and comparing two novel approaches to providing haptic guidance for path following and fine motor tasks. These two approaches are:

  1. using tactile shear guidance to provide directional information through the grip of a stylus; and
  2. augmenting a traditional stylus-based haptic interface with an active handrest.

In the first approach (providing directional information through tactile shear feedback), Provancher will investigate using a specialized stylus interface with shear devices embedded in its grip. These devices will transmit shear feedback to the user’s thumb and index finger. The second approach (using an active handrest) for executing path following and fine fingertip motions was inspired by the way artists use a baton-like handrest to support fine hand motions during detailed painting.

The active handrest will be explored as a supplement or substitute for traditional force feedback and other haptic guidance techniques, such as virtual fixtures. Through modeling and human subjects testing, Provancher will investigate two modes of supporting the user’s wrist and/or forearm while gripping a traditional stylus haptic interface. One mode will have the handrest impart forces or motions to the user’s wrist/forearm, providing corrective task intervention. The second control mode will infer the user’s optimal handrest position and preemptively move itself to provide continued support based on measured reaction forces.

Provancher plans to evaluate and compare the impact tactile shear guidance and the active handrest have on task performance (e.g., accuracy and execution time), versus established approaches. The research will also produce theoretical characterizations of the passive dynamics between the forearm and hand that will form the foundation for controlling active handrest systems. Algorithms for controlling the handrest under multiple modes of operation will be established.

Broader Impact: This research will lead to dramatic improvements in the realism of simulations and virtual environments of all kinds. Project outcomes will be applicable across a broad cross-section of domains including neuro- and tele-surgery, hand rehabilitation, guidance systems for the blind, and consumer applications like automotive GPS navigation systems. Imagine if, rather than having to look at your GPS navigation map or listen to its instructions, you received a shearing tactile cue from the steering wheel that told you a turn was coming up; this could significantly reduce driver cognitive load and thereby lead to improved driver safety.

A major objective is to attract women and underrepresented students, especially Native Americans, into the fields of science and engineering. To this end, he will develop haptic learning modules based on his research interests, which can be presented in conjunction with established college-wide outreach activities aimed at junior high and high school students, and that can also be used by the University of Utah Robotics Group (with which Provancher is affiliated) as part of its established relationship with Montana State University (which has a large Native American representation in its undergraduate programs). Provancher will also develop a course in haptics with innovations such as a Haptics Concept Inventory and hands-on demos.

Dr. Provancher is the director over the Haptics & Embedded Mechatronics Laboratory.


The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education. By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.