First ERC Synergy Grant for KU Leuven

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its Synergy Grants. Neuroscientist Rufin Vogels is the first researcher at KU Leuven to receive one. Together with colleagues in Tübingen and Maastricht, he has secured over € 8 million.

ERC Synergy Grants provide funding to teams of two to four Principal Investigators (PIs). The grants are awarded for a period of five to six years and may be worth up to € 10 million.

The main assessment criterion for the grant applications is the excellence of both the project and the researcher. Another criterion is the synergy between the different teams, which is assessed by means of an interview, among other things. The applications that pass the quality threshold are ranked on the basis of their score, and only the highest-ranked proposals get funding.

RUFIN VOGELS: BODY LANGUAGE AND OUR BRAIN

Congratulations on your ERC Synergy Grant! How did you react to the news?

Rufin Vogels: “I wasn’t expecting it at all! When you apply for this type of grant, the competition is fierce and success rates are low, so I’m thrilled that our project was selected. It’s wonderful news.”

Rufin Vogels | © KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

You will receive over € 8 million. What is the project going to be about?

Vogels: “We want to find out how the brain interprets body signals for non-verbal communication, which may be used to express emotions, among other things. Facial expressions are the most obvious example of this type of communication, but our focus will be on body posture and actions. Are you leaning towards someone or rather recoiling? Do you greet someone with a handshake? These are all ways in which we convey social messages with our body. We want to gain a better understanding of how our brain analyses these messages and what the underlying computational processes are.”

“We will use virtual reality animations, among other things, and then we’ll examine how our brain processes these stimuli. Which brain areas are involved, and how do they interact? We will also develop new methods of analysis and systems based on artificial intelligence. This translational project relies on intensive interaction between experiments and modelling.”

Your project comprises fundamental research. What are the potential long-term applications?

Vogels: “We hope to be able to contribute to the development of new AI and virtual reality systems to simulate and identify different postures. That may be useful for smart security cameras, for instance. Other applications include avatars that communicate like human beings, or robots that can interpret and predict body language, allowing them to work with human beings.”

“We’re also thinking of important clinical applications. For one thing, you could use virtual reality to train people with communication disorders. Many people on the autism spectrum, for instance, struggle with the interpretation of body language; they could benefit from virtual reality exercises.”

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