When the University of Central Florida devised a robot arm for wheelchair patients to move objects, they created two modes: one where the patient controls the arm manually and another where the computer does all work of identifying objects and figuring out how to move them on it’s own. As you can imagine, that last one is much faster and easier, so you’d figure that patients would prefer to just use the automatic let-the-computer-figure-the-dang-thing-out mode, right? Wrong. Because patients find it way too boring.
Yep, even though the manual mode is more challenging and makes users plan ahead for every action, they prefer to go through all the extra trouble. Why? Well, the researchers are pointing to the concept of “Flow,” the concept that people work best when they’re totally immersed in a challenging pastime (as anyone who got sucked into Portal can tell you). So, while the auto version was easier, it wasn’t challenging enough to trigger the flow and get people sucked into using it. (Which is weird if you think about what the organic equivalent: “Man, I spent 10 hours using my flesh-and-blood arm to manipulate things! I just could not put it down!)
What’s next for the project? Well, arm developer UCF Assistant Professor Aman Behal says they’ll be developing a hybrid mode that is more efficient to use than the manual version, but more engaging than the automatic version. Man, why don’t they just build in Plants Versus Zombies and be done with it?