PE for ME: Physical Intelligence and the Engineering of Innovative Exercise Equipment
The sensing, thinking, moving body is the basis of our experience in the world; it is the very foundation on which cognitive intelligence is built. Physical Intelligence, then, is the inherent ability of the human organism to function in extraordinary accord with its physical environment. This class–a joint DAPER/ME offering for both PE and academic credit–uses the MIT gymnastics gym as a laboratory to explore Physical Intelligence as applied to ME and design. Readings, discussions and experiential learning introduce various dimensions of Physical Intelligence which students then apply to the design of innovative exercise equipment.
The class journal pages are intended as a bulletin board for assignments, resources shown during class, and other useful information. Please select a specific class for more information on that week.
Week 1: What is Exercise?
Tour of DAPER facilities as “incoming research/design collective”
PowerPoint presentation on the history of exercise in Western civilization.
After a hello by Candace Royer, DAPER Department Head/Athletic Director, in the main lobby of the Z Center, we set out on an activity-based tour of the Department’s facilities–ice rink, indoor track, fitness center, pistol range, ending in the duPont gymnastics gym which will function as our primary laboratory. Upon playing in the gym to better know the range of movement it offers, we retired to the conference room for further introductions, initial discussions on ideas for projects, and a slide show discussion on “what is exercise”, including historical and cultural perspectives.
ASSIGNMENT Assignment 1
Due: Tuesday, Feb. 8th
What is Exercise?
Document (video/photo/writing etc.) five real-world examples of exercise.
Use the documentation to make a “concept map” addressing these 5 questions:
What is being exercised?
What purposes are being met?
What senses are involved?
What is the environment in which the exercise is taking place? (ex. Inside, outside, pool, fitness center etc.)
How do your five images differ and/or how are they the same?
Start with a large piece of paper.
Imagine that you are developing a landscape representing relationships between the various images/writing etc.
Use color, words, collage—any expressive means and media–to convey to a reader of the map what each “image” represents, how they are similar/dissimilar, what the overall picture says about what exercise is and how we practice it in this time and place.
Week 2: The Physical Intelligence Model
“Tooling:” Using Theraband, students build machines designed to exercise key aspects of physical intelligence (eg, the body’s relation to gravity, whole body movement, the role of sense perception).
Survey of exercise machines/devices past and present.
CLASS SUMMARY Week 2 began with a look at last week’s assignment: make a concept map using images, text and a good dose of creativity to explore last week’s central question, “What is exercise?” All students completed the assignment (a good sign!). The range of projects raised important questions: Is a game of darts exercise? What about simply standing and breathing? If so, what is being exercised? Such questions led to a discussion on 3 key aspects of physical intelligence:
- the body’s ongoing organization in relation to gravity
- the body as a system that is more than the sum of its parts
- the role of sense perception in movement.
Week 2’s lab involved hands-on exploration of these 3 key aspects. Using one material–150 yards of latex Thera-band–students were asked to design 3 “machines”, one to exercise each aspect. Students were allotted 15 minutes for each study. Creative solutions (see images) represented not only “outside of the box”, but “outside of the room in which the box sits” studies, and a significant step toward initial project concept drawings due next week.
Build a “Machine” That Exercises Your Relationship to Gravity
Build a “Machine” That Exercises Your Body as a Whole
prep for flying training
Build a “Machine” That Exercises Perception
exercise “machine” built for 2
hands become eyes
Brainstorm and produce concept drawings for three machines that exercise different key Physical Intelligence principles
Week 3: Visual and Kinesthetic Perception
Subjective and Objective Experiences of the Body: Walking running, leaping, while blindfolded yields dramatic physical experiences.SEMINAR
Review of preliminary project proposals: concept drawings of three exercise machines/devices designed to cultivate physical intelligence.
We began with a tour of the Hobby Shop where much of the work on models and prototypes will be done. Among its resources are a water jet computerized lathe, full metal and woodworking facilities—as well as the expertise of Ken who offers particular assistance with the process of translating drawings and plans into realistic constructions.
A Look at Concept Drawings
Students presented concept drawings of 3 proposed exercise “machines” based on the physical intelligence concept. A reverse sit-up machine, a piston-activated balance floor, a wheelchair accessible pull-up/dip machine and an exercise environment in which lights and sounds would direct the user in a movement sequence were just a few examples of devices which illustrated some of the principles of making exercise physically intelligent:
-Giving the body a movement problem to solve
-Creating environments which challenge habitual movement
-Stimulating proprioception and balance
-Involving whole body coordination
Visual perception is often the dominant sense in guiding our movements.
The purpose of this exercise was to compare the visual image of movement with the kinesthetic experience of it, both to amplify the felt sense of movement which is usually subordinate to visual perception, and to offer a new angle on design: from how the design might look to how it might feel to use it.
Students were asked to draw a picture of themselves in motion—running, jumping, etc. They were then blindfolded and asked to walk, run, leap, spin.
Still blindfolded, they drew the felt sense of their movement. The drawings were radically different: instead of stick figures and frame by frame images, the body as we know it disappears: the experience of movement is expressed in spirals, directions-in-space, being in many places at once— a whole system in motion.
Meeting with Alex
A brief discussion of what is required in the thesis proposals due next Tuesday, February 22. Include several drawings as well as an explanation of why you are choosing the one (or combination) you have decided upon.
The concept drawings were considered from the point of view of feasibility. Students will meet individually with Alex, Noah and Aline next Tuesday.ASSIGNMENT
3-d mock-up of best concept from Week 2’s assignment
Week 4: Physical Thinking
Thinking through the body for engineering insights: exploring our precognitive understanding of physical principles/properties (eg, torsion, tension, weight, etc).
Brainstorming session on project sketch prototypes.
Engineering insights are triggered as much by the physical action of using the prototypes–thinking with the body—as problem solving with pencil and paper.
A group brainstorming session on “rough sketch” mock-ups—rudimentary working prototypes of each design—provided an opportunity for students to describe their project and process thus far. Presentations included demonstrations and feedback, description of overall goals and relationship to the physical intelligence parameters:
Giving the body a movement problem to solve
Creating environments/devices which challenge habitual movements
Stimulating proprioception and balance
Involving whole body coordination
Students and instructors had a chance to try out the various devices (see images). Alex added suggestions on marketing and liability issues and engineering of the designs.
Etan: Smart baseball bat
Instrumented bat providing feedback on swing speed and technique, using accelerometers, audio feedback etc.
Ben: Tiltable Wheelchair Treadmill
Affordable, easily accessible treadmill device including variable resistance
Yuan: Giant Trackball Rehab Device
Inexpensive version of stroke rehab device that allows retraining of a variety arm movements.
Bearing caster set on wood hand-holds creates new challenges for common exercises such as push-ups and also offers possibility of exploring new movements
Tyler: Snowboard Training Harness
Image 1 | Image 2 | Image 3 | Image 4 | Movie
Simple single point shock-cord harness system allows dryland training of aerial snowboarding skills
Greg: “Airhead” Backstroke Support
Image 1 | Image 2 | Movie
Modified kickboard supports head and neck for easy learning of backstroke/floatation and also offers protection from crashes into pool wall
Hinged boots simulate skating action by offering one-way resistance in the water
Refine 3-d mock-up based on in-class experience
Week 5: “Orientation Strategies: Balancing”
Olympic Stumbling Competition: Playing the line between the maintenance and loss of balance as captured by high-speed video system. Best “compensatory dance” wins.
The motor system at work: strategies for balance; review of student prototypes.
Class opened with a general warm-up moving into balance studies. Our system–the human body–is constantly refreshing its balance as minute toe, ankle, knee and hip adjustments keep us from falling. But consider what happens when you are pushed or bumped: Larger compensatory actions kick into gear: arms swing wildly, hips and/or legs jut revealing our strategic preferences for problem-solving. How do these underlying habitual patterns interfere with or aid intentional movement?
Balance studies began with standing on one leg on a firm surface, on a soft surface, with eyes open and then closed. Our effort was to notice the “physical thinking” taking place that allows us to maintain our balance as conditions vary.
Our studies moved a step further as we attempted to balance on an unstable block. In addition to the added level of difficulty, fear became a factor as losing one’s balance had more serious repercussion: a greater fall. Twisting torsos, windmilling arms, hip dances—all combined in automatic action as students tried to keep their center of gravity in adequate relation to their feet.
We then addressed the emotion involved in our experience of being off balance by purposely falling backward off a still taller block into the waiting arms of classmates. For some, the activity was little more than an impromptu amusement ride. But for others the very idea of falling backward was enough to trigger all kinds of body signals, from giggling to subtle trembling to the quick action of hip flexors in a self-protecting sitting response.
Our final experiment was the Olympic Stumbling Competition: a controlled and rated fall down a long and padded incline—an exercise that proved surprisingly difficult as students worked to play the line between maintenance and a loss balance.
Our experimentation illustrated a key aspect of Physical Intelligence: one’s sense of balance. Paying attention to often ignored but fundamental sensations allowed us to tap our own physical system/experience as a means of revealing some of the assumptions and patterns that form the underpinnings of all other movement.
The second portion of class involved looking at progress on student projects. After last week’s assessment of the “rough sketch” mock-ups, students were expected to bring their developing prototypes several steps further. Specific areas for problem-solving through analysis and hands-on experimentation were suggested. Designs will have to be more clearly defined and engineered for next week’s peer review.
Complete most critical modules.
Week 6: Learning Movement
Exploring unexplored movement: increasingly complex/unusual movements reveal the highly evolved process of feedback involved in physical learning.
Peer review of class projects with prepared questionnaire.
As did the vast majority of us, a toddler learns to crawl, stand and walk by trial and error. With little or no “instruction” the child engages a sophisticated and highly evolved process of feedback in learning to orient and locomote in relation to gravity. If you consider the complexity of the walking action, the human organism is a smart and remarkably adaptive wonder in these realms.
Class opened with a 45min. session entitled “Exploring Unexplored Movement”. A brief warm-up evolved into attempts at a series of increasingly complicated, unusual movements across the gym’s floor exercise mat. Bounding backwards on all fours, tucked “side rolls” and the like, presented a range of challenges for students. Discussion focused on how it is awkwardness quickly transforms into a basic level of proficiency; the many feedback loops involved in the learning process; what improvement feels like; and how this learning process might apply to your design/design process. The section concluded with blindfolded back somersaults on the trampoline—a daunting and revelatory challenge for all.
Image: Class Discussion
Movie: Floor Exercises
The second portion of class was devoted to a peer review of class projects. Students displayed working prototypes of their designs that classmates could explore, learn to use, and comment on the design, its viability, usability and physical intelligence “quotient”. A prepared questionnaire was used that each student would receive written commentary by all other students.
Etan: Instrumented Baseball Bat
Instrumented bat providing feedback on swing speed and technique, using accelerometers, audio feedback etc.
Ben Su: Variable Resistance Wheelchair Treadmill
Affordable, easily accessible treadmill device includes variable resistance
Yuan: “Programmable” Tabletop Rehab Device
Inexpensive version of stroke rehab device allows retraining of a variety of arm movements.
Bearing casters set on wood hand-holds creates new challenges for common exercises such as push-ups. Also offers possibility of exploring new movements
Tyler: Snowboard Training Harness
Simple single point shock-cord harness system allows dry-land training of aerial snowboarding skills.
Greg: “Airhead” Backstroke Support
Modified kickboard supports head and neck for easy learning of backstroke/floatation. Also offers protection from crashes into pool wall.
Hinged boots simulate skating action by offering one-way resistance in the water.
Integrate modules for initial completion of project designs.
Week 7: Designing Physical Intelligence
Reworking traditional exercise machines for Physical Intelligence.
SEMINAR Review of critical module; progress reports on projects.
CLASS SUMMARY Physical Intelligence is an expression of the whole organism, moving, breathing and sensing, in constant interaction with its environment. Unfortunately, many common forms of exercise greatly limit the richness of our experience of movement. Does a typical approach to conditioning such as doing “dips,” prepare us, or offer the range of physical fitness and learning as climbing a tree or over a wall? What is the difference between lifting weights and wearing, for example, a weighted suit while running, jumping, etc.? This week we explored familiar forms of exercise, eg, free weights, sit-ups, push-ups, dips along with common exercise machines with an eye toward increasing their Physical Intelligence Quotient (PIQ). For comparative reference we simultaneously explored:
- A Pilates machine, which allows a user to activate core muscles in response to pressure/tension exerted by the feet and hands–a closer approximation to actual experience.
- A “water-rower,” which better simulates the experience of rowing by means of a water-filled resistance wheel.
- The “Gait Shoe,” running shoes developed in the MIT Media Lab, equipped with special sensors to give feedback on various aspects of gait.
After a brief discussion contrasting the benefits and drawbacks of the various exercise forms, student pairs were given fifteen minutes to draw sketches of modifications to a stationary bicycle that would increase its “P IQ.” Some exciting innovations included several systems for varying the bike’s balance and a virtual reality system that would change the terrain by means of pistons in synch with the changing visual scene. Once we begin exploring concepts and practices of exercise to meet the needs of physical intelligence, possibilities abound.
The second half of class involved progress reports on thesis projects that the engineering of final working models could begin next week.
Test and troubleshoot project designs based on peer review.
Week 8: E-motion
Walking a 4 inch beam 40 ft. in the air highlights the physical sensation of emotion and its effect on movement.
May exhibition planning.
Though in daily life we tend to consider emotion abstractly, in actuality all emotions are based in bodily, sensory experience. Along with the pre-movement strategies for orienting and balancing that we have considered in previous weeks, the “movements” of the autonomic nervous system, what we experience as anger, fear, sadness etc., can play a fundamental role in shaping our more conscious, voluntary movement patterns. To illustrate this, this week we used some of the more thrilling elements of the “high ropes” course in the gymnastics gym.
We compared the sensation of walking a line on the floor, a low beam, a beam 4ft off the floor—the same movement, each one a different and more challenging context. Then, dressed in full regalia, harness, helmet and belay equipment, one by one we climbed the rope ladder to the 4 inch beam–40 feet in the air. Descent was by rope swing across the gym. Traditionally high ropes courses are used to develop confidence and risk-taking ability. Here they provided a laboratory for experiencing the physical sensations that we call “fear.” At 4 or 40 ft, shaking legs and arms, sweating, and increased muscle tension are some of the markers by which our bodies signal emotion. In this context they are obvious; on a more subtle level, they operate underneath our conscious attention, creating tension patterns that interfere with coordination and fluid movement.
Class also included a quick look at student progress, and beginning to plan for the exhibition in May which will include an explanatory poster as well as a finished device.
Prepare drafts of posters for exhibition; continue work on projects.
Week 9: Applying Physical Intelligence
Fieldtrip to the MIT Museum: Attempts to build a running robot highlight key points of Physical Intelligence considered in past weeks.
Sketch design session for May exhibition posters.
This week we visited the Robotics/Artificial Intelligence exhibit at the MIT Museum to see how physical intelligence is currently being applied in technology and design.
In a strange reversal, the attempt to build/imitate a biological system also illustrates several of the key points of physical intelligence that we have considered in past weeks.
What goes into making a machine that can move by itself?
Whole Body Movement or Mechanics Isn’t Enough
To unlock the mystery of the cockroach’s ability to climb, scientists and engineers start with the mechanics—for example, an analysis of joint positions leads to blueprint for a giant robotic cockroach. Unfortunately, having the right structure is just the shell: the machine can’t even stand up. We can draw a parallel to exercise: Exercising individual muscles/limbs or looking at the body as form, (“keeping in shape”) is only a small part of the story.
Progress comes when the researchers look at the sequence of movements that go into the cockroach’s renowned climbing ability: the three sets of legs coordinate, one set reaching, another pushing and the third stabilizing, to allow the roach to climb over obstacles. Just so, physically intelligent exercise involves the whole body in coordinated action.
Evolving In An Environment
In the process of making a robotic tuna, the secret of its powerful, efficient swimming is discovered: the tuna’s tail flicks the water flowing off its sides into vortices that combine into jet propulsion, i.e. the tuna gets the water to power its movement– a brilliant adaptation that mobilizes the forces available in the environment to make the tuna the ocean’s top swimmer. In theory, humans have evolved to navigate as skillfully in the gravitational field (our “ocean”). Unlike the tuna, our survival no longer depends on the efficiency of our movement. With that constraint gone, for better or for worse, we are often working against gravity when we move instead of having it work for us. A reframing of physical education might be to help us find the ease of movement that evolution has provided us.
The Key Role of Perception
It is not that hard to make a robot that can walk down stairs—as long as the stair width never changes. What comes so naturally to us after a year of life is one of the thorniest problems of artificial intelligence. From the first day, a baby is involved in complex social interactions, learning to receive information from the world and to respond and interact. Perception and response is the basis of moving, but to build this level of complexity into a robot still defies us. Technology is advancing in this arena, while in a sense, we humans are falling behind: because it does come to us so naturally, we neglect to develop it, or exercise it, and so don’t preserve this amazing ability. This makes up the third aspect of physically intelligent exercise: a rich multi-sensory environment that stimulates perception.
We used the second part of class to refine the students’ posters that will be an important part of the final exhibit in a few weeks.
Prepare final working project designs.
Week 10: Complex Coordination: Walking
Guest Speaker: Dr. Rob Playter, ’90, Boston Dynamics Inc.
“Physical Intelligence and the Design of Running Robots”
High-speed video imaging explores bipedal locomotion and the spinal engine model.
Visit to the MIT Biomechatronics Lab for an on-site introduction to current projects (exoskeleton, “smart” prosthetics, etc)
Prepare projects and posters for final review