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Control Theory

Control Theory doesn’t often come up in casual conversation. But it’s come up for me lately, quite a bit actually, and I still have a hard time getting a grasp on it.

Control Theory doesn’t often come up in casual conversation. But it’s come up for me lately, quite a bit actually, and I still have a hard time getting a grasp on it. My daughter’s boyfriend, John, is a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, in engineering, emphasis on Control Theory. While in school, he is researching possibilities for improvements in MRI machines, with professors from Stanford, Berkeley, SF State and various medical centers. We have pints and dinner on a semi-regular basis, and I ask a lot of questions. I understand most of what he does, but it isn’t easy stuff.

As best I can define it, Control Theory is a field of study that sits at the nexus of engineering and mathematics, in an effort to understand dynamic, complex systems. It involves logic, computation and feedback. It is both a means of understanding a system and a method of developing one. I do know John could go get a job at Google, design industrial robotics, continue in medical research or go teach. He’s an interesting guy. He goes backpacking, writes enough code to be dangerous, and he believes in driverless cars.

Then a couple of weeks ago, on a visit to Dayton, Ohio, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, I learned about Human Factors in Control Theory, complicating the matter even further! I was visiting the base for a story on research into Virtual Reality, and found myself in the center of the U.S. military’s Human Performance Wing, where they delve into psychoacoustic perception as a means of developing simulation technologies and understanding human response. Fascinating stuff.

There are five-wall and three-wall CAVEs, 270-speaker spherical cages hanging in anechoic chambers, and a number of audio labs with test speakers on the walls and ringing the interiors. The research is conducted in conjunction with Wright State University and led by a couple of passionate audio engineers: Robert Gilkey, a longtime VR professional now at WSU, and Brian Simpson, a former gigging guitar player from St. Louis who is now a civilian researcher on the base. You’ll read more about them in a coming issue of Mix.

I was visiting Dayton and Wright-Pat at the invitation of longtime family friend John Flach, a professor of psychology and engineering at Wright State. John was a student of my father’s back in the early 1970s and has gone on to get a doctoral degree in psychology and the near-equivalent in engineering, specializing in Human Factors, essentially a subset but integral part of Control Theory.

Human Factors involves Science and Mind and Behavior. He’s done research into perception for pilots, and he’s designed user interfaces for doctors to access medical records quickly, then show a patient how behavior changes the diagnoses. Essentially, he injects the human into the complex system. He also studies how decisions are made. He has a few academic texts out on Human Factors, the latest a more accessible one titled What Matters. John does not believe in driverless cars.

While in Dayton, I also learned a whole lot about the Wright Brothers, the poster-boys of Control Theory and Human Factors. Our grade-school classes didn’t do the brothers nearly enough justice. They didn’t invent flight; others were working on it, too. Their genius—and their patents—was in figuring out how to control the plane.

So as I drove back from Dayton to Bloomington, I started thinking about all the times we use the analogy of an audio engineer being in “the cockpit,” at the console. On the Human Factors scale, an audio engineer is not that far removed, either literally or figuratively, from a pilot. The amount of complex technical and subjective data coming all at once. Sounds at all frequencies, becoming a whole. Metering, perception and taste. Choices. It’s all there, just with audio sources rather than visual sources coming through the glass.

Tom Kenny, Editor