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Inria Awards 2013

Anatole Lécuyer: Young researcher Inria - Académie des sciences award

Anatole Lécuyer

Currently head of the HYBRID team, Anatole Lécuyer was recently awarded the lnria - Académie des Sciences (French Academy of Sciences) young researcher prize. As well as considering this reward a personal honour, he also views it as a form of recognition for his research fields, virtual reality and brain-computer interfaces, which are still relatively "young" and little-known.

In his youth, he dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. Today in his role as director of research at Inria, Anatole Lécuyer remains greatly interested in graphic design. Yet his science-based studies "naturally" led him to take up an industry role in the late 1990s. So how could he go about combining this career path with his initial passion? At the time, virtual reality was beginning to emerge within the I.T. field. This "graphics material with which we can interact," as he describes it, is a source of fascination for Anatole Lécuyer. "I could immediately see that this was a subject able to encompass everything that I aspired to myself," he says. From this point onwards, his career path was mapped out.

He began by resigning from his industry-based position in order to take up a research role. To do this, he contacted various laboratories working in the field and set up his own doctorate environment. His was a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary approach... Philippe Coiffet, a pioneer in virtual reality in France at the Laboratoire de Robotique de Paris (Paris Robotics Laboratory) of the Universities of Paris 6 and Versailles St-Quentin, Sabine Coquillart, leader of the Inria I3D team, and Aerospatiale (later to be renamed Airbus) were thus on hand to guide him in his work.

A founding moment

Not only does he speak of this doctorate as a real source of pleasure for him, it also represented a founding moment for Anatole Lécuyer. "It was a turning point, it was then that I made the decision to pursue a career in research," he explains. Over a period of three years, he explored the interface between humans and virtual reality, in particular haptic modality , new to France at the time. He was even responsible for discovering a surprising phenomenon, "pseudo-haptic feedback", whereby a purely visual stimulus can give the subject the impression of a force being exerted on their body. From this point on, his work became focused on exploiting the properties of human perception. It was something of a "reverse" approach, as he puts it, where perception is fundamental and technology plays a secondary role.

As he explored this field, new to him at the time, Anatole Lécuyer not only read up a lot, but also developed numerous collaborations with researchers specialising in neuroscience and cognitive science. "Since then, most of my collaborative projects have involved at least one specialist in these fields," he states, citing, for example, Edouard Gentaz (cognitive psychology, Grenoble) and Olivier Bertrand (neuro-imaging, Lyon). This offered a means of creating a link between these researchers, who could use virtual-reality technologies to explore the functioning of the human brain, and I.T. experts, who could put this neuroscience knowledge to good use to create new technologies.  

Between 2007 and 2009, Anatole Lécuyer even divided his time between Inria Rennes, where he has been a researcher since 2002, and the laboratory of professor Alain Berthoz, at the Collège de France. Here, he continued to explore human perception and "haptic illusions", which remain one of the main focal points of his work.

OpenViBE... and beyond

In 2005, he was amongst the very first in France to approach a new subject: brain-computer interfaces, or BCI. Here, interaction does not occur via the body but directly "through thoughts". Is it possible to move around in a virtual world based on brain activity alone? Such is the question posed by the OpenViBE project (2005-2009), financed by ANR, the French National Research Agency. This was to result in open-source software, which continues to be widely used in laboratories and in numerous applications including assistance for the disabled. The OpenViBE2 project (2009-2012) went on to test this software on a demanding audience, if ever there was one: video gamers. In the meantime, OpenViBE led to the creation of Mensia Technologies. This start-up created in late 2012 aims to market medical devices for diagnosis and brain rehabilitation. "I wanted to develop a medical application as part of my work", emphasises the researcher. Despite his role as co-founder and scientific advisor at Mensia, Anatole Lécuyer has also stayed on at Inria.
The reason for this: in January 2013, he took up the reins of a new research team, HYBRID. Its objective: to pool and combine the different means of interacting with virtual environments by offering a hybrid approach. This involves creating a link between haptic or pseudo-haptic interaction, and brain/computer interaction. As such there still remains plenty of room for new discoveries for Anatole Lécuyer, who delights at the current distribution of virtual reality in applications aimed at the general public (3D TV and cinema, video games, augmented reality, etc.). "We are going to be able to distribute our results and technologies on a massive scale", he hopes.


Alain Berthoz, professor at Collège de France.

What makes Anatole remarkable is his imagination allied to his technical competence. While working on his thesis, he already made the major discovery of the pseudo-haptic illusion (a subject perceives a force which does not exist). He immediately realised that what he was observing was important. It is not a given for everyone to be able to "see" this well!
We have worked together twice. First, while he was still at the CEA (the French atomic energy commission) in Fontenay, we tested one of my assumptions that we reformulated together. It concerned the role of haptic information for improving the visual perception of movement. This was a new idea requiring Anatole, firstly, to understand the relevant neuroscientific bases and, secondly, to solve non-trivial computer problems. He then demonstrated his ability to address subjects beyond his initial educational background. Next, he came to work in my physiology of perception and action lab, in the context of collaboration between Inria and the Collège de France (College of France). We then developed this hypothesis using a more complex stimulus. During the year he spent at the Collège de France, we developed together at least two other paradigms concerning the perception of virtual reality, and another one related to the perception of real forces. I am also aware that his software for processing EEG is widely used, and I have appreciated the demonstrations of virtual world technologies that I have seen at his laboratory at Rennes, and how Anatole always formulated a fundamental question about perception with respect to a problem of a technical nature. Honestly, I regretted his departure: I tried my best to encourage him to work at the Collège de France because I would have been delighted with his presence in our laboratory.
More generally, I think serious progress will not be made in the understanding of brain functions without the contribution of young people with training in computer science and who agree to further train in neuroscience and cognitive science. These are people who are capable of not only modelling how the brain works, but who can also compare the results with those of a concrete human experimentation, and can understand the relationship between the language of the brain and that of the machine. Anatole Lécuyer is part of this generation at the boundaries between the Engineering Sciences and Neurosciences which advance knowledge and technology.   

Keywords: Anatole Lecuyer Inria Award Human-machine interaction Brain-computer interfaces Video game Virtual reality