Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) have created a computer-controlled robotic arm designed to help wheelchair-bound people perform actions such as grasping and lifting objects. It has both an automatic mode, in which the computer identifies objects and figures out how to grasp them, and an option for full manual control. When physically-challenged people were selected to try the device out, the researchers were surprised to discover that most of them preferred going manual. It’s all about something called Flow.

In manual mode, test subjects had to think several steps ahead, and either type instructions on a keyboard, or use precise verbal commands. It took longer than going automatic, and the end result wasn’t any better. Nonetheless, they preferred it.

“We focused so much on getting the technology right,” said UCF Assistant Professor Aman Behal. “We didn’t expect this.”

According to John Bricout, Behal’s collaborator at the University of Texas, Arlington, it’s because of the psychological theory of Flow – people don’t want to be overwhelmed by difficult activities, but they do want to be engaged. “If we’re too challenged, we get angry and frustrated. But if we aren’t challenged enough, we get bored,” he explained. “We all experience that. People with disabilities are no different.”

Behal is now planning on creating a hybrid mode for the arm, that is more interactive than automatic, but still more efficient than manual. The next version of the arm will also have varying degrees of automation, so it can be matched to the abilities of individual users.

It would be interesting to know how Flow affects peoples’ acceptance of other high tech tools – will we reach a point where navigating streets or contacting friends becomes “too easy?”

For another example of a robotic arm for wheelchair users, check out the University of South Florida’s mind-controlled model.