200 Days in the Life of the College

Tuesday, April 12

Cutting-edge work where humans, computers meet

By Rebecca Behrens ’11

“For years now, studying how humans interact with computers has been something of a black art,” says Stuart Hirshfield, the Stephen Harper Kirner Chair of Computer Science. “That is, if we wanted to get a user’s impressions of an interface — whether a website, a microwave oven or the cockpit of an airplane — we had to rely on subjective impressions from imprecise surveys gathered after the fact.”

Hirshfield is pioneering new means of collecting much more reliable data about the human-computer interface, working with a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And one of the most rewarding aspects of that research is teaming up with his daughter-in-law and one-time thesis advisee, Leanne Miller Hirshfield ’02. When Leanne studied interface usability in earning her doctorate, Hirshfield realized that they could combine her expertise with his own in computer security. Together they have set up a state-of-the-art Next-Generation Usability Laboratory where Hamilton students across disciplines, from computer science and math to neuroscience, can tackle projects.

Their research goes beyond subjective impressions to analyze biological data such as pulse rate, skin temperature, gaze and even localized brain activity — all occurring while the user is interacting with the machine. The work is “a perfect blend of practical applications and cutting-edge research,” Hirshfield says. From this research, for example, we could make video games like the Wii highly responsive to us. The console “could know not only how you are moving, but also whether you are tired or distracted, and could adjust its level of play accordingly.”

Hirshfield says the familial bond with his co-investigator has only been strengthened by their work. During a recent family vacation, the two had a meeting to hammer out research plans and brainstorm ideas for new papers. Their own “interface” clearly reaches beyond the lab.