Students create technology for the future at HCI Lab

Robot close-upBy Brenlee Coates

Stepping into the Human-Robot Interaction Lab is a bit like seeing a miniature Facebook office operating inside the Engineering and Information Technology Complex at the University of Manitoba.

Desks are arranged with openness toward the room, inviting interruptions or collaboration from other students. There is a shared work table, a cozy couch, and a projector they use for staging presentations – always seeking feedback and suggestions from their peers. But much of the time, they are coding.

There are three labs that comprise the HCI Lab at the U of M: two Human-Computer Interaction Labs, and one Human-Robot Interaction Lab, each supervised by a professor of the Department of Computer Science.

Research projects are instigated by the students, and vary greatly from developing software and more user-friendly computer interfaces, robotic innovations, and conducting studies on the perceptions of these technologies.

One such project is a study on robots in a position of authority. The human subjects were asked to complete a menial and unappealing task, then prompted to move on to another, equally exasperating task. The subjects were either instructed by a human in a lab coat, or the Nao robot, to proceed.

The study found that twelve out of fourteen people completed the work for the human in charge, while approximately half saw the tasks through for the robot.

While the study points to more reluctance to obey a robot, the Nao robot in the study is a pretty unintimidating and small robot, with a youthful voice. Results could vary depending on the appearance or perceived dominance of the robot.

The students chose to test humans’ performance for a robot because they can conceive of a future where robots may replace humans in certain jobs, as they are already being used in the military, hospitals, and elsewhere.

Another project that was particularly impressive was a project that recalled Spike Jonze’s recent futuristic film Her – or not-so-futuristic, as a little time in the HCI Lab conveyed. A fourth-year PhD student, Barrett Ens, has come up with a multi-screen, 3-D interface that functions as a touch screen projected in front of you. It can be shrunken down to a smaller, globe shape when on the move, or transformed to a fixed view on a wall to be used comfortably at the office or at home. You can also grab the screens or apps to move them.

The device works in conjunction with a set of 3-D glasses and small projectors secured onto your chest and arms. Up until now, these types of spatial interfaces have had fixed screens, meaning they projected one 2-D screen and you couldn’t change the size of the screen or easily switch applications.

Ens predicts it won’t be long until these on-the-go, spatial interfaces are widely used, and so far their fixed screens limit the usability of the technology. People will be used to the ease of smart phones and will expect the same user-friendliness, or better. He anticipates it is only a matter of time before the head-worn devices, or 3-D glasses, become completely unobtrusive as well.

While these types of projects are exciting, they may sound intimidating to an undergrad. However, students of the HCI Lab range from post-doctoral fellows to undergraduate students, and are surprisingly interdisciplinary. Though many of the projects require students to invent new technology, psychology and sociology students sometimes contribute to the lab, as the technological projects always have a sociological component.

Often the studies focus on the sociological aspects while “looking at it from the position of a computer scientist,” says Dr. Andrea Bunt, co-director of the lab.

The technology is also always created with an ease of use in mind, which means bringing in test subjects.

“A large aspect of our work is running experiments with human subjects,” says Dr. Bunt, “we (all) like to hire psychology students from time to time.”

“You’re looking at a technology that is so close to humans. Bringing in people, having them use your program, and having them react to using your program” is a priority of the lab, she says.

Students of the lab become accustomed to giving presentations, as well, as they have the opportunity to travel to present their findings. Many students also get their research published or co-author research papers.

Dr. Bunt iterated that alumni of the program are well versed in defending their projects both verbally and in writing, as both are major components of the lab.

In order to join the HCI Lab, students must be accepted into a co-op program, or enter the graduate program with the equivalent of an honours degree in computer science. Interdisciplinary students and other undergraduate students usually gain work during the summer at the lab. Some undergraduate students also work or volunteer as research assistants in the lab throughout the year.

The co-op, five-year computer science program allows undergraduate students to take part in the lab throughout their studies and participate in three work placement opportunities. The work experience led some of its students to attain credits on the movie Avatar, though Dr. James E. Young , another co-director of the lab, concedes the movie has an enormous credit list.

The work placements often lead to job offers, however, and the students are compensated well for their term positions at major companies like Amazon, IBM, and Electronic Arts.

Students that work in the lab are funded by scholarships and grants. Dr. Young says they earn enough to cover tuition as well as live debt-free. Many international students work in the lab, with students that entered the program from Egypt, India, Bangladesh, China and Japan.

Dr. Bunt thinks that being able to see a project through from start to finish is what makes grads of the program so employable. They are able to work independently and collaboratively to accomplish their goals.

Recent grads have gone on to more studies at world-renowned schools like the Georgia Institute of Technology, or have been hired to work at local game development companies and technology companies. Others have been hired at a variety of companies that have a technological component – a trend that is becoming increasingly commonplace.

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