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December 15, 2011

Problem Solver

Graduate Student Finds Elegant Solutions in Everyday Experiences

By Byron Spice

Chris HarrisonIn 2004, Chris Harrison was bushwhacking across East Africa's Serengeti plains, seemingly beyond the bounds of civilization, when he came upon a Maasai man swathed in red, his long hair in warrior braids, armed with a customary six-foot spear.

To Harrison's surprise, the man greeted him in English. The culture shock was complete when the man removed a cell phone from his robes to share photos of his family.

"He had a more sophisticated phone than I did," recalled Harrison, now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

Harrison, who has visited more than 50 countries to date, says that learning the often surprising ways that people in other lands use technology stokes his own creativity.

But travel is just one of the factors that he believes contributes to his prodigious creative output since arriving at the HCII in 2007.

The list of inventions and visualizations that he has worked on began in his first two weeks at CMU with Lean and Zoom, a technology for automatically adjusting the magnification of on-screen content based on a person's distance from the screen; it has since been commercialized by the QoLT Foundry. That was followed by a variety of innovative methods for controlling mobile devices with taps or gestures, enabling 3D teleconferencing and designing touchscreens that can deform into physical controls.

Most recently, he presented four papers at the prestigious ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. Two were technologies he developed as an intern at Microsoft Research - OmniTouch, a Kinect-based system that turns almost any surface into a touchscreen, and PocketTouch, a means of controlling touchscreens through fabric, such as a pocket.

Two others were TapSense, which uses acoustics to discern the difference between taps of the finger tip, pad, nail or knuckle on a touchscreen, and a method that capitalizes on optical distortion inherent in cheap LCD monitors to create messages that can be seen when viewers are at oblique angles.

"He has a good instinct for ideas that are simple, but solve big problems," said Hrvoje Benko, a researcher at Microsoft Research who worked with Harrison on OmniTouch. "He is also not afraid to try things out, and he works fast. I remember leaving in the evening after talking to him and leaving him with several open questions, only to find him in the morning telling me: 'This worked, this didn't and here is why.' If you can answer questions with that clarity and that speed, you can accomplish great things."

Just where all the ideas come from, Harrison can't say exactly.

"It's hard for me to describe," he said. "It's not a process. I don't just sit down, grab a cup of coffee, and start thinking really hard. It's not predictable. You have to be in the right environment, with the right people, with the right inspirations - for me, that place is Carnegie Mellon."

Several things seem to be important for him:

Taking things apart.

"Almost everything in our world is designed," Harrison explained, and seeing how things work can lead to ideas about how to create new technology or recombine old technologies.


Americans often assume they can have the latest technology. But as the Serengeti experience indicates, the developing world sometimes provides a glimpse of the future by being unencumbered by and leapfrogging entire generations of technology.

Be artistic.

Harrison has taken CMU courses in sculptural welding and glass blowing, and regularly takes advantage of the welding shop in Doherty Hall when he needs a break from research.

"I love working with my hands, such as ceramics," he said.

Location, location, location.

Harrison finds inspiration in the HCII's DevLab, a workshop in Newell-Simon Hall where students assemble do-it-yourself gadgets alongside next-gen technologies.

"It's a great funky space, decorated with things students have hacked and personalized," he said. "My house in Friendship is the same way. It's a big, old Victorian that me and three other CMU Ph.D. students have fixed up."

For Harrison, whose career ambitions lean toward academic research, human-computer interaction has proven to be an apt field for someone who's been tinkering from an early age.

"It's neat because it's not only computer science," he explained, "but also lets you dig in with your hands."

Chris Harrison has had one success after another during his time as a Ph.D. candidate in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.