October 10, 2003
ISU a leader in blending real with digital
by Diana Pounds
It's not your father's pong. It's group Pong, played on a big screen in Howe
Hall. The occasion was the recent celebration of the launch of Iowa States
human computer interaction program. Virtual reality and other high-tech
demos were part of the event. Photo by Bob
When a bulldozer driver excavates a building site, he's guided by a few
stakes in the ground and a contour map. To pinpoint where to dig, he must
reconcile the lines on the map with the stakes. The job might be
considerably easier if the driver could don a pair of glasses that
superimposes the contours of the map right on the ground.
"Augmented reality" is the term for this blending of the real with the
digital, and it's a key part of the fledgling field known as human computer
interaction -- or HCI.
New, innovative computer devices -- in the bulldozer driver's case,
high-tech glasses -- are the trademark of HCI. They promise to so streamline
interactions between people and computers that the mouse, the trackball, the
keyboard will surely someday seem quaint and clunky.
Those new, innovative devices are just the kind of thing they've been
working on at Iowa State's Virtual Reality Applications Center over the past
few years, and that's one of the reasons Iowa State has become a national
leader in human computer interaction.
In July, ISU became the second major research university in the nation
(Carnegie Mellon was the first) to offer M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in the
field. Ten students have enrolled in the program since then.
"We are really good in HCI," said James Oliver, associate professor of
mechanical engineering and a VRAC faculty affiliate. "That's what we
discovered when we looked around."
What they found when they looked around were pockets of scientists all over
campus working on HCI-related research. The faculty came not only from
"techie" fields like computer science and engineering, but psychology,
journalism, math, statistics, music, geology, art, architecture, business,
education, economics, agriculture, botany and religious studies.
HCI aims to help people deal with all the computers (and computer-generated
data) in their lives and that's a very interdisciplinary undertaking, Oliver
"In all fields, we're inundated with data," Oliver said. "We don't suffer so
much from information overload as attention overload. With all that data,
how do we know what to look at?"
A solution is to make better interfaces -- to develop devices that allow
people to access data by seeing it, hearing it, touching it, who knows,
maybe even tasting it. That solution requires a partnership between the
technical experts, like computer scientists and engineers, and the subject
matter experts, like historians, psychologists and musicians, Oliver said.
"We put these people together and see what they can do."
Buoyed by the local talent in the field, HCI was designated one of Iowa
State's top academic initiatives in 2002. Subsequent funding brought three
new human computer interaction experts to the Iowa State faculty this fall
-- Chris Harding in the department of geological and atmospheric sciences,
Chad Harms in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, and Dirk
Reiners in computer science.
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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