New Australian-first laboratory at UWS

Date: 23/10/2002

The University of Western Sydney is poised to become one of Australia's leading research centres in human movement and communications, with the establishment of a new dedicated research laboratory.

The Australian Research Council and UWS will help fund the new facility, which will allow Australian and international researchers to study communicative gestures in humans through speech, body movement, dance and music.

The new lab will be housed within the MARCS Auditory Laboratories at the University's Bankstown campus. MARCS Director, Professor Denis Burnham, says it's a major coup for the University.

"We believe the new laboratory, combined with our existing facilities, will put UWS on the international research map, and lead to greater understanding of the way humans communicate, and how they respond to emotional triggers," Professor Burnham says.

Professor Burnham says the funding will be used to set up the lab and purchase specialised monitoring equipment.

"Equipment known as Peak Motus will allow us to record and analyse larger movements, such as those of caregivers and infants, contemporary dancers, or conductors and musicians," Professor Burnham says.

"Another system, called Optotrack, will be used for more specialised movements, like those of the face or head. We will also develop an audience response unit to measure participants' reactions on-line as they watch dance or music performances."

Professor Burnham says there are several projects already underway, which will benefit from the new facility.

"The first is an assessment of the gestures and rhythmic, musical vocal patterns mothers and babies use to communicate with each other, called communicative musicality, and whether singing or humming to seriously ill infants will help them recover faster," Professor Burnham says.

"In the future, the equipment may also be used to track speech development through both gestures and vocal patterns in developmentally delayed children, or whether this technique would help patients suffering Parkinson's Disease or Multiple Sclerosis."

Professor Burnham says other research will focus on speech production in various languages and the impact that emotional responses have on the formation of speech.

"Using the Optotrack apparatus, researchers place infra-red markers on a person's head and face, and track the movement of the face in various linguistic and emotional tests," he says.

"This equipment will allow the MARCS Auditory Laboratories to become a world leader in audio-visual linguistics and emotional studies. The research will allow us to better analyse the processes of human speech and also improve machine speech synthesis and recognition systems."

Professor Burnham says the Peak Motus equipment will also be used on motion-capture research projects.

"We'll be monitoring expressive forms of dance and movement, and asking an audience to interpret different aspects of the dance performance - from the way it makes them feel, to what they think the movement means. We'll also be using portable audience response equipment to gauge their psychological response to a live dance performance."

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, and the Victorian College of the Arts will also use the new lab through collaborative projects. The new facilities are also likely to strengthen MARCS collaborations with overseas institutions such as Edinburgh University, the Brain Science Institute in Riken, Japan, and the University Witten Herdecke in Germany.

Professor Burnham says the new Human Movements and Communications Laboratories will complement the existing research facilities at the MARCS Auditory Laboratories.

"MARCS already conducts unique and ground-breaking research into speech and language acquisition; music, communication and emotion; and hearing impairment, auditory perception and cognition. These new studies will also place MARCS at the forefront of human movement and emotional response research," Professor Burnham says.

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