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HCI Center established at university

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 08 - October 12, 1995

A new interdisciplinary Center for Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at Virginia Tech has received a $1.1-million grant from the National Science Foundation's Networking Infrastructure for Education program.

The HCI center combines the expertise of faculty members in computer science, curriculum and instruction, humanities, communication studies, industrial and systems engineering, psychology, accounting, the multimedia lab, and information systems. They will carry out research and service activities pertaining to the uses and impacts of computing technology in work, education, and leisure.

The center is a common point of contact for industries seeking research and for industrial continuing education, consulting, and testing requests, and for students seeking an interdisciplinary education in response to a developing technological and social force. The NSF award will further the establishment of multidisciplinary research programs and student support.

"Computer science and technology is opening up new possibilities and new challenges for education, for work, and for leisure time," said John Carroll, computer science department head. "Human activities, needs, and preferences are driving the development of computer technology as never before, and those involved are, in fact, a much more diverse group than merely computer scientists."

Carroll, whose research is in the area of human-computer interaction, will direct the center.

Human-Computer Interaction is the intersection between psychology and the social sciences, on the one hand, and computer science and technology, on the other. "HCI researchers increase the chance that new information technology can actually be used by people for real purposes," says Carroll.

HCI provides stringent controls for creating and evaluating new information systems and technology. Researchers analyze and design specific use-interface technologies such as new pointing devices, improve the cognitive and organizational processes of technology development, and integrate and evaluate new applications of technology in human activities.

Virginia Tech has had a significant presence in HCI for more than 15 years, through a highly successful, long-term collaboration between the computer science department and the industrial systems engineering department, Carroll said. The collaboration has resulted in several major grants. In 1993, the computer science department won an NSF Educational Infrastructure award to explore the use and usability of digital library resources in university courses. Also in 1993, computer science and industrial systems engineering won a Research Infrastructure award to develop three new HCI laboratories. This year, computer science won a five-year Graduate Research Traineeship award in HCI.

"These awards and the formation of the center underscores the strengths of our programs in these areas," said Len Peters, Virginia Tech's vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School. "It's confirmation of what we've recognized internally-that the university is a leader in increasing understanding of, and responding to, the social and technological impacts of human-computer interaction."

Working with resources from the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the university's initiative to increase faculty members' computer resources and skills, faculty members from many other departments have also developed HCI research programs, Carroll said.

"So many novel and excellent projects are developing throughout the university that one can scarcely keep track. I can't wait to get all these ingredients into the Center for Human-Computer Interaction and stir the pot," Carroll said.

During the first year, the center will establish a Web-site, create a technical report series as a distributed digital library, and conduct a summer institute in HCI, directed chiefly at industrial practitioners. The summer institute will be developed as a real-world laboratory for studying HCI issues in educational technology such as distance learning, collaborative learning over networks, and access to digital libraries.

The center will receive its financial support through direct funding of research contracts, projects, and events. It will be managed by a director in consultation with faculty members with active grants. An advisory board consisting of leaders from industry and government-individuals from across the globe who will meet electronically-will ensure focus on the most urgent and high-value research problems in HCI, Carroll says.

"In establishing the Center for Human-Computer Interaction, I think the university is proactively acknowledging that we need to understand and facilitate the development of computer technology in the broadest possible terms. We will succeed as a university only if we reach across the disciplines, across the campus, across the commonwealth," Carroll said.