The web page on your computer screen is crammed with barely visible text. You lean way in to decipher the tiny print. You repeat this action all day, Monday through Friday. Result? A bad back and strained eyes.
Now imagine if your slightest forward movement triggered the screen to magnify to a comfortable, readable size. Chris Harrison, a Ph.D. student in Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), has made this a reality.
Beyond increasing comfort for the average computer user, it has wide-reaching implications for those with visual impairments.
That's not all. Noting the uncomfortable miniaturization of today's keypads, Harrison created the "Scratch Input" tool.
Imagine writing a checkmark with your fingertips on a hard surface. A microphone built into the device picks up the sound — or scratch — that the movement makes. It then initiates a specific command — like answer phone. Writing the letter 'X' could make the device call a nurse.
Indeed, the possibilities are endless and could be especially helpful to individuals with limited fine motor control. While these inventions are aimed at improving quality of life for individuals with physical limitations, Harrison noted that the HCII maintains a broader assistive focus.
"The ultimate goal of technology is to be assistive," he explained. "All the technology that I work on is designed to make humans more efficient, able to interact better, be more productive. We're user-centric."
A prolific inventor, Harrison's homepage is chock-full of technological marvels, including a touch screen with "buttons" that protrude and retract, allowing a driver, for example, to operate the climate control without taking his eyes from the road.
Describing the unique HCII environment at Carnegie Mellon University, Harrison said, "It is definitely the best place in the world to do HCI research, bar none."
He added, "We have people from every possible major related to HCI represented. The faculty is very receptive. You can knock on someone's door and say, 'I have an idea,' and they say, 'OK, when do we begin?' You have to have the crazy people pushing the crazy ideas because that's where the real innovation happens."
Harrison would welcome commercialization opportunities for his creations. His future goals, however, include more lofty ambitions, inspired by appreciation for faculty members like his advisor, Scott Hudson.
Harrison explained, "I'm very passionate about teaching. I want to continue to give back to future generations. It's amazing how much time and effort the faculty at Carnegie Mellon invest in their students, and I would love to continue in that tradition and share my enthusiasm and expertise with others."