Early in his career, Edward Lank noticed that people were often impressed with interesting new software developments but wouldn’t embrace them.

“The systems were perhaps clever, but people wouldn’t use them,” says Lank, associate director of the Cheriton School of Computer Science and co-director of the Human Computer Interaction Lab (HCI).

So Lank made it his goal to make a person’s interaction with computers - specifically gesture-based motions - a better experience and he found the best inspiration is a team of students with diverse backgrounds from psychology to engineering and anthropology.

Ed Lank

“I find things that capture students’ imagination and let them drive toward it,” says Lank.

Moving from tap and swipe to shuffle

Smartphone users can already perform some tasks through motion gestures instead of using their fingers to tap or swipe their screens. For example, they can shuffle songs on an iPhone simply by shaking it — a gesture dubbed “shake to shuffle.”

Ankit Kamal, a graduate computer science student, wrote an app that measures a person’s progress as he or she tries to learn how to control a smartphone using various motion gestures. The app will tell users how quickly they’re learning the gesture required to turn a page by flicking their smartphone — a gesture that would be handy on winter days when users are wearing gloves.

Valerie Sugarman, also a computer science grad student, is working to help people use their smartphones to dial down the amount of electricity they use when demand spikes — for example, on summer days when air conditioners are running full blast.

Sugarman envisions a time when people might be offered incentives to reduce their power use — perhaps discounts on their electricity bills or coupons for cold drinks at nearby coffee shops.

Other HCI lab projects include:

  • devising software that will enable smartphone users — even hundreds of people at a time — to interact with a huge screen placed in a public venue. That could mean playing an interactive game on a movie theatre’s big screen before the main feature begins or using a smartphone to interact with content on a huge 3-D screen.
  • observing how people interact with screens — and with each other — in public places in order to learn how to position information on a screen so it’s easy for many people to use at the same time.

The research team isn't in the business of developing products for consumers, Lank noted. Rather, they’re doing the initial research that commercial software developers can build upon to make products that people will embrace.

 “We’re just earlier in the development path,” Lank said.