Meet Pittsburgh's Version of Steve Jobs

At CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Chris Harrison comes up with personal gadgets of the future.




Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock
 

 

At the Human-Computer Interaction Institute in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, a consortium of computer scientists, designers and behavioral scientists is trying to determine how technology can best fit into our daily lives. The institute acts as an incubator of sorts for the personal gadgets of the future.

Dr. Chris Harrison, a one-time Ph.D. student at the institute who recently signed on as a professor, has been at the forefront of some of the school’s coolest projects. He and his team came up with Skinput, a wearable device that projects an interactive computer “screen” onto the skin. It allows you to do everything from activate a home security system to turn on the subtitles of a DVD by tapping a few photon “buttons” projected onto your wrist. They also birthed Zoomboard, a tiny keyboard made for smart watches that can zoom into a QWERTY set of keys as the user taps a touch screen, allowing for easier typing.

He’s currently working on FingerSense, a touch screen that responds as certain objects press against it. Imagine a tablet art program that draws in response to the tip of a pencil, saves the work in response to a fingertip and presents a color palette in response to a knuckle. Harrison, 29, also designed wedding bands for himself and his fiancée and built his own raft for a 35-mile journey down the Allegheny River.
 

Out of the specialties you could pursue, why human-computer interaction? 
Computers have gotten really, really fast, so much so that we never really max them out. Operating systems used to crash all the time. I remember as a kid, the computer would freeze and I would lose my homework. Nowadays, I don’t reboot my laptop [for] months. So I had to ask: What are the interesting questions left out there? Well, the usability of machines is really lackluster. When you use a smartphone, there is a lot of frustration about that experience, so I wanted to take my computer-science knowledge and apply it to human problems, not the internal operations of a computer.

What determines what you work on? Do we need a wearable “Skinput” projection system or a zooming keyboard? Or do those just present a challenge? 
Those two projects are sort of polar opposites. The thing where you have a worn projector, we probably don’t need that right now. What it’s meant to do is probe a little bit into the future and see: If we can do this, what can we do with it? You can’t really answer that question until you’ve glued together the prototype. This has been true for computing for a really long time. When researchers invented text messages, they never thought anyone would laboriously type a bunch of messages to their friends when they could just call. Zoomboard, on the other hand, is tackling a problem we have right now. Smart watches are becoming very popular, and putting text into them is horrendous or impossible.

What do you see as the next piece of technology everyone will own? 
I think it will be something like the smart watch or Google glasses — something [that] is worn on the body, is always accessible and is always on. That’s an extension of where personal technology has moved. First we had the computer. Then there was the laptop, which you could take with you. Then there was the smartphone, which you have on your person. The next thing will be on the body.

What do you think the Apple Store will look like going forward? 
I think a lot of the same devices will be for sale. There might be some additional things. The thought used to be that we would move to one device, one thing that would be your phone, camera, computer, radio [all in one], but more [often] we see people [buy more gadgets instead.] If you’re at the bus stop, you won’t want to take out your laptop, and you wouldn’t want to write a paper on your phone. It’s like a toolbox; you need wrenches and screwdrivers, different things for different jobs.

You also study older technology. Your master’s thesis was on the slingshot. Why was that of interest? 
The sling has been a backburner hobby of mine since high school. As a piece of technology, it is so simple. It’s two strings and a pouch. The skill component relies entirely on the user, not the weapon. There’s an intimate bond between sling and slinger that’s lost between many technology artifacts. And it has a really long history, [from antiquity] to the Greek Civil War of the ’30s.

So, you and your friends built slings in high school? 
That — and a catapult.


Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to 1 million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Trees around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh are filled with nesting crows, and many students are wondering why.
Inside the Ultimate Man vs. Machine Poker Match in Pittsburgh

Inside the Ultimate Man vs. Machine Poker Match in Pittsburgh

Four of the world’s best poker players are playing 120,000 hands of Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold’em against Libratus, the poker-playing bot created by Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists.
See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

Watch the video that reveals Bell’s talents that go beyond the football field.
RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

Chris Howard will help decide which four teams will vie each year for college football’s national championship.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to 1 million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

The rest is history at ye olde Colonial Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia and now a restored revolutionary war-era village.
Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

I snuck into a steel mill. Bethlehem, Pa. I’d been bragging about how big Pittsburgh’s industrial ruins were when a woman in a bar told me, “Bethlehem’s are bigger.” Size matters.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Trees around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh are filled with nesting crows, and many students are wondering why.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Zach Behm was chef de cuisine at Cure in Upper Lawrenceville at the time of a July car wreck.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The latest outpost of the popular local chain is housed in the former Verde space in Garfield.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

The Steelers are going to have to attack the game to survive it, to grab it by the throat and choke it to the desired conclusion.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Reviews of "Split," "20th Century Women" and "The Founder," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Real Pittsburgh Weddings: Why All of the Guests Got a Gift

Real Pittsburgh Weddings: Why All of the Guests Got a Gift

This couple wanted to make sure all of their guests felt as included as possible.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Making Moves: Restoration Hardware Coming to North Hills

Making Moves: Restoration Hardware Coming to North Hills

RH Pittsburgh, The Gallery at Ross Park Mall is opening up shop at Ross Park Mall. The new store will replace the luxury brand's prior location in Mt. Lebanon.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Gun Violence Target of Carlow's Social Justice Institutes

Gun Violence Target of Carlow's Social Justice Institutes

The University will conduct research and offer scholarships to victims.

Comments