Dr. David W. Schloerb
Research Scientist

Current Research & Goals

I work with Mandayam A. Srinivasan in the MIT Touch Lab. My work involves the development of hardware and software and various experimental studies related to haptics. Currently, I am writing the application software for a virtual haptic map that the Touch Lab is developing as an aid for the blind. I am also working on a non-invasive Brain-Machine Interface project with the goal of controlling a robot arm purely by thought! The following photograph shows the small, 14 cm long, backdrivable robotic gripper that I designed and built for a project involving invasive Brain-Machine Interface experiments that we did in collaboration with Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University. For more information on our research see the MIT Touch Lab web site.

My cable-drive gripper (Sept. 2004).

This research continues my long-term investigation of telepresence. The essence of telepresence and the related concept, virtual presence, is the idea that a person is in some sense present in an environment that is different from where he or she is physically present. This area is interesting to me because of the many potential applications for the technology (e.g., Teleoperation, Virtual Reality, Human-Computer Interface). I am also fascinated by questions of being (e.g., What is existence? What does it mean to be here?). My goal is to explore these ultimate questions in the context of solving practical problems such as developing better ways to communicate with computers or searching for sunken treasure. My research ranges from fundamental theory, to experimental psychophysics, to hardware and software design.


My interest in telepresence grew out of my love of diving. I have been interested in diving since I was four, when I first watched the television show Sea Hunt. Reading about Jacques-Yves Cousteau's Conshelf II project in National Geographic Magazine led me to start building my own "underwater houses" when I was ten. My most successful project (seven years later) involved sitting inside an oil drum named "Julius" on the bottom of a muddy lake in Wisconsin (see my publication, "Julius '72"). From there I went to MIT, where I met Henry W. Kendall who supervised my undergraduate thesis: "Diver Communication" (Physics, 1977). Henry was a dear friend until his death in 1999. One of our adventures was the discovery of some cannons jettisoned (almost certainly) by the HMS Nimrod during the War of 1812.

After graduation I worked for Stephen D. Reimers, building specialty equipment for the diving industry. Next, I went to commercial diving school (Commercial Diving Center, PD-101) and worked very briefly for a small diving company (Atlantic Diving Co., Gloucester, MA) before returning to MIT for a Master's degree. My thesis was: "Development of a Diver Operated Underwater Arc Stud Welding System" (Mechanical Engineering, 1982). After that, I returned to Reimers Engineering where I worked for five years. One of my main jobs was to manage the company's product line of breathing simulators, like the ones we sold to the US Navy Experimental Diving Unit, for unmanned testing of breathing apparatus.

During that period, I came to the conclusion that the best way for me (as a mechanical engineer) to advance diving technology was to develop underwater robots. I also became intrigued by the possibility of telepresence: the idea that one might be in some remote location (like the bottom of the ocean) without actually going there. 

I went back to MIT in 1987 to begin working on a Ph.D. in this area with Thomas B. Sheridan. During the first semester I supported myself as a Teaching Assistant for Woodie C. Flowers in course 2.70, Introduction to Design (now called 2.007). My first research project with Tom Sheridan was to design and build an underwater manipulator for the National Undersea Research Program. A temporary loss of funding in that project led me to a 3-month internship at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in 1990. I completed construction of the manipulator in 1992, although we never moved on to operational testing at sea. The manipulator was given to NASA in 1993 to be used in a program that seeks to learn more about doing science in space by working in remote environments on earth.

I like to think of the manipulator project as working on telepresence from the bottom up. In 1992 I started working from the top down, trying to develop a theory of telepresence. This resulted in a paper (see, "A Quantitative Measure of Telepresence") and turned into a thesis project with Tom Sheridan. My goal was to understand the relationship between subjective telepresence and task performance. I struggled with this problem for three years until one of my committee members, Nathaniel I. Durlach, suggested an alternate project. Under his direction I began a psychophysical study of stereopsis using the Virtual Workbench, completing my doctoral thesis two years later: "Adaptation of Perceived Depth Related to Changes of the Effective Interpupillary Distance in Computer-Graphic Stereoscopic Displays" (Mechanical Engineering, 1997).

I continued to work with Nat Durlach in the Sensory Communcations group of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT and eventually moved down the hall to my current position in the Touch Lab. I like to think of our research as working on telepresence from the middle out.

Publications  (pdf downloads are provided for research purposes)

Kim, H.K., Biggs, S.J., Schloerb, D.W., Carmena, J.M., Lebedev, M.A., Nicolelis, M.A., Srinivasan, M.A., "Continuous Shared Control for Stabilizing Reaching and Grasping with Brain Machine Interfaces." IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, June 2006, 53(6) pp. 1164-1173.

von Wiegand, T.E.,  Schloerb,  D. W., and Sachtler, W.L., "Virtual Workbench: Near-Field Virtual Environment System with Applications." Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, October 1999. 8(5): p. 492-519.

Schloerb, D.W., "A Quantitative Measure of Telepresence," Presence : Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, February 1995, 4 (1), pp. 64-80. [3,223 K]

Schloerb, D.W. and Sheridan, T.B., "Experimental investigation of the relationship between subjective telepresence and performance in hand-eye tasks," in Telemanipulator and Telepresence Technologies, Hari Das, Editor, Proc. SPIE 2351, pp. 62-73 (1994).

Schloerb, D.W., "Development of a Four-Function Mini-ROV Manipulator for Marine Scientists," Intervention/ROV'92 Proceedings, Marine Technology Society, June 1992, pp. 207-220.

Schloerb, D.W., "Conceptual Design for the New MBARI ROV Human Interface," Intervention/ROV'91 Proceedings, Marine Technology Society, May 1991, pp. 61-72.

Masubuchi, K., Schloerb, D., Gustin, H.,"Development of Fully Automated and Integrated ("Instamatic") Welding Systems for Marine Applications," 15th Annual Offshore Tech. Conference, May 1983.

Schloerb, D., "Julius '72," Skin Diver Magazine, October 1974, pp. 76-77. [864 K]

Contact Information

David W. Schloerb
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
/ Research Laboratory of Electronics
50 Vassar St., Room 36-789
Cambridge MA 02139

(617) 258-0858 (voice)
(617) 258-7003 (fax)