Smartphones and tablets are getting all the love these days—from the Wall Street crowd to tech enthusiasts to celebrities. They’re getting all the airtime, too. You can’t watch a top televised show or event without commercials from Apple, Google, HTC, Lenovo and Samsung showcasing their latest mobile computing devices. Not a believer? Bet you’ve seen the majority of the most viral tech ads of 2012—7 out of 10 are for mobile devices.
As devices play an ever-larger role in our daily lives, the need to perfect that interaction between human and computer becomes ever more critical. No, there’s not an app for it (yet), but Georgia Tech, located in the heart of Atlanta, is grooming today’s young and talented into tomorrow’s experts in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)—the study, planning, and design of the interaction between people and computers. Essentially, HCI is used to design interfaces that are more friendly, efficient and satisfying for people to use.
Spark was recently in Atlanta and had a quick chat with Yan Xu, a recent graduate of Georgia Tech’s Human-Centered Computing PhD program with an emphasis in HCI. (Note: Qualcomm helps fund the Augmented Reality Game Studio at Georgia Tech.) Yan’s research focuses on the background of humanities and sociology, establishing a deeper connection to co-evolution between humans and technology. In brief, Yan is very passionate about improving the experience people have with technology, particularly their smartphones.
One project Yan is most proud of is NerdHerder, a mobile app that leverages augmented reality, an emerging commercial technology that allows people to enhance the real world around them with data from the digital world. NerdHerder is currently available on Google Play and iTunes.
Yan’s team on the NerdHerder project included three Georgia Tech students including Yan, one student from Savannah College of Art and Design, and a Berklee College of Music student who worked remotely—all under the supervision of faculty advisor, Professor Blair MacIntyre (who has contributed to Spark in the past). Not only did Yan and her team develop NerdHerder, including the art and sound in this game, they were responsible for shooting promotional videos and photos and running playtesting and user studies to improve the game. We talked to Yan about the project and her pursuits.
QUALCOMM SPARK: Why did you choose to focus on AR and work with Professor MacIntyre?
YAN: That was in 2007. AR, at the time, was a very fascinating field of study and it still is. Also, early on at Georgia Tech, I studied facial tracking technology with gaming—another part of HCI. This background in computer vision-based interfaces and using human movement as input in gaming and entertainment synched perfectly with Professor MacIntyre’s field of study/desire to develop handheld AR games.
QUALCOMM SPARK: So what’s it like being a PhD student—we see lots of couches here, a dartboard, coffee machine.
YAN: (Laughs) I think you have to have a lot of passionate for what you’re doing—in my case AR and mobile gaming—or you might not survive! It’s very stressful and typically lasts for five or six years.
QUALCOMM SPARK: You seem like the driven, 24–7 type. Are you?
YAN: Yes, I guess. I like to work on a lot of projects and we usually have small groups. For instance, last semester when we worked on NerdHerder, we often met at noon and worked until whenever.
QUALCOMM SPARK: What is your biggest takeaway from Georgia Tech?
YAN: During my years here, I really changed my view of creativity from “that’s a really ingenious idea and personal endeavor” to “it’s about collaboration and an environment where everyone can build on each other’s ideas and inspire each other, and achieve things that you normally would not be able to working in isolation.”