People of ACM - Chris Harrison

July 3, 2014

Chris Harrison is an Assistant Professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, directing the Future Interfaces Group. His team creates novel sensing and interface technologies that foster powerful and natural interactions between humans and computers. The research often lies in emerging use modalities, such as wearable computing, touch interfaces and gestural interaction. Harrison is also a co-founder of Qeexo, a startup developing "rich-touch" interactive technologies, and the former Editor-in-Chief of  ACM XRDS.

Has your decision to continue XRDS, the ACM magazine for students, as a print publication when it was redesigned in 2010, been vindicated by any metrics that capture its current impact?

Last I heard,  XRDS subscriptions are up and going out to some 40,000 students across the globe. The immediate feedback on the relaunch was tremendous. I think  XRDS has evolved into a top-rate academic magazine. Articles are being cited and people are asking to contribute articles.

Overall, I think ACM is once again connecting with and promoting the next generation of computer scientists.

Are you able to predict when your concept smartwatch, which supports continuous 2D panning and twist, as well as binary tilt and click, will grow into a market segment?

Most of the research we do in the Future Interfaces Group at CMU is two to five years out. We're probing the "just possible" of today to figure out what the interesting questions will be in five years. The question we ask ourselves is: How can we guide technology evolution—interfaces in particular—and make the future of computing the brightest it can be?

For our smartwatch work in particular, I think this is something that could be commercialized in a year or so. It just needs "buy-in" from industry—which is tough—but that is why academic research is important. We can be very nimble and free-thinking, unconstrained by immediate productization. We can get a great many ideas out into the public eye, see what gets people excited, and in turn, influence industry.

What is the next step for you and your team in developing technologies that encompass unconventional dimensions of touch for interactive purposes?

Computers are fast…humans are fast in their own ways…but the interactions between the two are slow. Unlike processor speed, monitor resolution, and so on, this isn't a problem that will solve itself over time (like we've been able to enjoy with Moore's law). Fingers aren't shrinking! So there is a continuing and pressing need to innovate new interactive technologies.

A major vision we are working toward now is "rich-touch." Multi-touch, which has served us well for almost a decade, is actually pretty simplistic—it's mostly about poking at screens with different numbers of fingers-one-finger pan, two-finger pinch, four-finger swipe and similar. The number of fingers is the important dimension, hence the "multi." But of course, our hands are much more sophisticated than this, and rich-touch screens aim to capture not only the number of fingers on the screen, but how they are touching—things like shear force, pressure, grasp, part of finger, who's touching and so on. These are all the rich dimensions of touch that make interacting in the real world powerful and fluid.

As an innovator in engaging a wildly diverse array of experts in exploring aspects of human-computer interaction, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

A career in computing is exciting for so many reasons! The days of sitting in your little cubicle hammering out endless code are coming to a close. Today's IT workers are the cool kids—they make the world go round. This has led to huge demand for these skills, which in turn, has led to excellent pay, exceptional perks and benefits, and often, a tremendous amount of intellectual freedom and autonomy. Look no further than the plush campuses of Microsoft, Yahoo, Qualcomm, Google, Facebook, etc.

Secondly, today, the field is as much engineering as it is science, architecture, puzzle-solving, design and even art. Software engineers are craftsmen, using their hands on a daily basis to shape something great. The golden age of computing is now! If that doesn't get you out of bed each morning, I don't know what will.