Amanda Studnicki, a graduate student at the University of Florida, has spent years training for this moment. As the captain of her high school tennis team and a four-year veteran of varsity tennis in college, she was well-prepared for the challenges ahead.
Her goal was simple: think small, like ping pong small. For weeks, Studnicki practiced against players on a table tennis court, some of whom wore a science-fiction-like cap of electrodes connected to a backpack. The purpose of this unique setup was to study how our brains react to the demands of a high-speed sport like table tennis, and whether playing against a machine opponent would make a difference.
Working with her advisor, Daniel Ferris, Studnicki made an interesting discovery. The brains of table tennis players react differently depending on whether they are playing against a human or a machine opponent. When faced with a ball machine, players’ brains become scrambled, trying to anticipate the next serve. On the other hand, when playing against a human opponent, their neurons work in unison, confident in their next move.
These findings have implications for sports training. They suggest that human opponents offer a realism that cannot be replicated by playing against machines. Additionally, as robots become more advanced, understanding how our brains respond to these differences could help make artificial companions more naturalistic.
Professor Ferris, a biomedical engineering professor at UF, explains the significance of this research. With the increasing presence of robots in our daily lives, it’s important to understand how humans interact with them. The long-term goal is to study how our brains react to these differences.
Ferris’s lab has been studying the brain’s response to visual cues and motor tasks for some time. When Amanda Studnicki, with her tennis background, joined the research group, they decided to focus on tennis. However, the large movements in tennis, especially high overhand serves, posed a challenge for their technology.
To overcome this obstacle, they scaled down their research to table tennis. They asked the same questions as before but on a smaller scale. They also added more electrodes to the brain-scanning cap to account for the rapid head movements during a table tennis match.
By analyzing the brain activity of players with these electrodes, Studnicki and Ferris focused on the parieto-occipital cortex, the area of the brain responsible for turning sensory information into movement. This area has been extensively studied for simple tasks but not for complex movements like tracking a ball in space, making table tennis a perfect sport for their research.
Their analysis of dozens of hours of play revealed an interesting pattern. When playing against a human opponent, the players’ neurons worked in unison, as if they were all speaking the same language. In contrast, when facing a ball-serving machine, the neurons in their brains were not aligned with each other, resulting in desynchronization.
Ferris explains that desynchronization in the brain indicates that it is busy doing calculations instead of idling. The team suspects that the players’ brains were so active while waiting for robotic serves because machines provide no cues about their next move. These findings suggest that training with a machine opponent might not offer the same experience as playing against a real opponent.
Despite this, Studnicki still sees the value in practicing with a machine. However, she believes that machines will evolve in the coming years, offering more naturalistic behaviors for players to practice against.