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Biol Cybern. 2013 Dec;107(6):637-52. doi: 10.1007/s00422-013-0564-4. Epub 2013 Aug 13.

Human stick balancing: an intermittent control explanation.

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  • 1Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, 3010, Australia,


There are two issues in balancing a stick pivoting on a finger tip (or mechanically on a moving cart): maintaining the stick angle near to vertical and maintaining the horizontal position within the bounds of reach or cart track. The (linearised) dynamics of the angle are second order (although driven by pivot acceleration), and so, as in human standing, control of the angle is not, by itself very difficult. However, once the angle is under control, the position dynamics are, in general, fourth order. This makes control quite difficult for humans (and even an engineering control system requires careful design). Recently, three of the authors have experimentally demonstrated that humans control the stick angle in a special way: the closed-loop inverted pendulum behaves as a non-inverted pendulum with a virtual pivot somewhere between the stick centre and tip and with increased gravity. Moreover, they suggest that the virtual pivot lies at the radius of gyration (about the mass centre) above the mass centre. This paper gives a continuous-time control-theoretical interpretation of the virtual-pendulum approach. In particular, by using a novel cascade control structure, it is shown that the horizontal control of the virtual pivot becomes a second-order problem which is much easier to solve than the generic fourth-order problem. Hence, the use of the virtual pivot approach allows the control problem to be perceived by the subject as two separate second-order problems rather than a single fourth-order problem, and the control problem is therefore simplified. The theoretical predictions are verified using the data previously presented by three of the authors and analysed using a standard parameter estimation method. The experimental data indicate that although all subjects adopt the virtual pivot approach, the less expert subjects exhibit larger amplitude angular motion and poorly controlled translational motion. It is known that human control systems are delayed and intermittent, and therefore, the continuous-time strategy cannot be correct. However, the model of intermittent control used in this paper is based on the virtual pivot continuous-time control scheme, handles time delays and moreover masquerades as the underlying continuous-time controller. In addition, the event-driven properties of intermittent control can explain experimentally observed variability.

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