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Introducing Wolfgang Stürzlinger - an Interface between Humans and Computers


bridges vol. 16, December 2007 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

by Walter Minehuber

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Interaction with an electronic partner can be complicated. Images in simple Word docs pop up in places where they shouldn't. Excel sheets suddenly calculate functions whose existence one wasn't even aware of. And Photoshop with all its functions still remains a blurry mystery to John Doe. Today's state-of-the-art software can do a lot, but too much sophistication often leads to frustration rather then excitement for the average user, who becomes a regular in the "how to" help section.


York Professor Wolfgang Stürzlinger
York Professor Wolfgang Stürzlinger
Commodore 3032 picture
A long time ago: Stürzlinger’s first computer

Back in 1981 in the town of Ried, Upper Austria, the father of a then 15-year-old boy faced that kind of situation with some software that was supposed to ease his work as a tax consultant - well, at least in theory. Since his son spent most of his free time in front of a Commodore 3032, he asked his offspring: Can you do SOMETHING USEFUL with this thing, such as creating a program to improve my work? His son, Wolfgang Stürzlinger, now associate professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at York University in Toronto, surely could: At the age of 15, he wrote his first commercial software package for his dad, a new tax-consultant program. With easy-to-use functionalities and a user-friendly interface, the software met his father's demands - and apparently also the needs of the rest of the market: By 1989 RZL Software was the leading developer of tax consulting software in Austria, a position it still retains.

Today, Wolfgang Stürzlinger's research interest still focuses on finding solutions for real-world problems with computers, combining the research fields of human-computer interaction, computer supported collaborative work, and virtual reality. As Stürzlinger puts it, "We are still in a state where the computer controls the user, instead of the way it should be: The user controls the computer!"


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MULTI + SESAME = CoViD

One of Stürzlinger's current research projects is the Collaborative Virtual 3D Design (CoViD) project, which focus on advancing the process of creating digital 3D models of objects like homes, buildings, or even parts of whole cities. Those 3D models are especially important in application areas like architecture, urban planning, and industrial design, where a model is created before starting to work on the real object. Currently, this process of creating a 3D model is rather complex and requires the help of a trained computer specialist to incorporate the design ideas. However, often, non-computer experts are the actual stakeholders in a design project and want more active "hands-on" involvement in the design process. To do this, one needs easy-to-use design software that doesn't require years of training and that, ideally, allows several "designers" to work simultaneously on a model.  To make this possible, Wolfgang Stürzlinger created CoViD, which is based upon the two sub-projects SESAME (Sketch, Extrude, Sculpt, And Manipulate Easily) and MULTI (Multi-User Laser Table Interface).
 

SESAME picture
SESAME: Creating 3D models in an easy way

At first glance, SESAME looks like any other software program that allows designers to create 3D models. The difference from existing programs is that SESAME really is easy to use and therefore doesn't require as much training as other programs. This makes it an ideal design program for naive users, who want to create and modify 3D content quickly to communicate design ideas. Moreover, user studies have revealed that SESAME encourages more creativity during the design process than current tools, due to its simplicity.
 

CoViD picture
CoViD: Designing structures in collaboration

MULTI is an computer-based infrastructure that enables groups of three to seven users to work together more seamlessly. Instead of one person being the "main interactor" with the only mouse and keyboard, while the others are "back seat drivers", Stürzlinger points out that MULTI provides enough input devices so that everybody can work together on an equal basis. When using MULTI, all collaborators sit around a futuristic interactive table with three interactive walls. Instead of using a conventional mouse-keyboard combination, each user gets a laser stylus, which basically looks like a laser pointer. Each stylus works as a pen to move things around or create new objects, as well as being a pointing device. The difference from current computer systems is not only that one interacts with the computer through this laser stylus but also the fact that all participants can create and modify things at the same time.
[To get an impression of MULTI and how it works you can watch a video clip where three collaborators solve a puzzle together.]

 

The Centre for Vision Research at York University

"Going abroad was definitely an eye opener. I did not really know how the scientific community works with the viewpoint I acquired at a university in Austria," Stürzlinger says. After receiving his Ph.D. at the Vienna University of Technology in 1993, and spending several years at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship allowed Stürzlinger to visit the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1997. He started to search for a faculty-type position and eventually decided to continue his career at York University in Toronto. "The institution offered me a place where I saw a lot of potential for future growth." One of those potentials was the Centre for Vision Research (CVR), which focuses on the interdisciplinary research area of human perception.

Founded in 1992, the CVR currently has more than 100 members, based in several departments at York University. On the one hand there are neurologists and psychologists who focus on core perception topics in order to discover the processes underlying human perception. On the other hand there are people like Stürzlinger, who describes his part of the research "a little bit more on the fringe of the CVR because I use the results on human perception gathered by my colleagues to make user interfaces easier." This interdisciplinary team of psychology, biology, health science and computer science experts created one of the five best centers in the world in the complex area of perception research.
 

Triangle example
The triangle example

One phenomenon of human perception that Stürzlinger uses for improving human-computer interaction is the concept of Gestalt. "The sum of the whole is greater than its parts" is the basic idea behind the Gestalt concept, which is a German term meaning "shape" or "configuration." The Gestalt theory, first introduced by the Austrian philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels in 1890, emphasizes that we perceive objects as well-organized patterns rather than as separate component parts. A simple example would be how we perceive shapes like a triangle. When we see a common triangle, we don't view it as three lines and three angles, but as one thing: a triangle.

This idea of "grouping" is a focal point of Gestalt theory. The main factors that determine grouping are:

  • Proximity - how elements tend to be grouped together depending on their closeness.
  • Similarity - how items that are similar in some way tend to be grouped together.
  • Closure - how items are grouped together if they tend to complete a pattern.
  • Simplicity - how items are organized into figures according to symmetry, regularity, and smoothness.

Based on this knowledge, Stürzlinger created a system that automatically recognizes how humans perceive a layout and can select objects accordingly by just one simple click. This kind of research also attracted one of the biggest computer technology corporations, IBM. Because they use software engineering applications to draw large diagrams, IBM became interested in the perception-based interaction and recently started to collaborate with Stürzlinger to improve the handling of those programs.

To explore future trends, especially in the 3D user interface area, Stürzlinger is also involved in the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Symposium on 3D User Interfaces, which has been held annually since 2006. "All the work on 3D user interfaces was scattered throughout a dozen different venues," as Stürzlinger describes the former situation. The goal was to synthesize all these events to better coordinate research and make it more accessible for young researchers who are interested in this topic. Stürzlinger will definitely remain in the field of university research, but leaves his location open - either staying in North America or returning to Europe seems a possible option to him. Besides his own research, what he really enjoys is working together with graduate students.  He concludes "one of the most rewarding aspects of being a professor is working with the students and seeing them grow."
 

***
The author Walter Minehuber is a student of entrepreneurship and management at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences of WKW and economics and computer sciences at the Vienna University of Technology. From October through December 2007, Walter Minehuber was an intern at the Office of Science & Technology at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.

 

Links

Homepage Wolfgang Stürzlinger
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/~wolfgang/

York University - Department of Computer Science and Engineering
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/cshome/index.html

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
http://www.unc.edu/

Vienna University of Technology
http://www.tu-wien.ac.at/

Johannes Kepler University Linz
http://www.jku.at/

Stuerzlinger, W., L. Zaman, A. Pavlovych, and J.-Y. Oh. "The Design and Realization of CoViD, A System for Collaborative Virtual 3D Design." Virtual Reality 10, no. 2 (2006): 135-147.                     
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/~wolfgang/papers/covid.pdf

Oh, J.-Y., W. Stuerzlinger, and J. Danahy. "SESAME: Towards Better 3D Conceptual Design Systems." ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, June 2006.
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/~wolfgang/papers/sesameui.pdf

Stuerzlinger, W. "MULTI: Multi-User Laser Table Interface." CHI 2005 Workshop on Distributed Display Environments, April 2005.
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/~wolfgang/papers/multi_design.pdf

Dehmeshki, H., and W. Stuerzlinger. "Using Perceptual Grouping for Object Group Selection." CHI 2006 Work-in-Progress, April 2006.
http://www.cse.yorku.ca/~wolfgang/papers/gestaltmodel.pdf

Wikipedia
http://www.wikipedia.org/

Centre for Vision Research
http://www.cvr.yorku.ca/home/index.html

IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces 2008
http://conferences.computer.org/3dui/3dui2008/index.html

RZL-Software
http://www.rzl.at/
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