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 Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Beer News: East End Brewing Moving to Bigger Space in Strip District

Beer News: East End Brewing Moving to Bigger Space in Strip District

The new space, called the East End Brewery Taproom, will offer lunch and dinner service, expanded hours and a place for customers to sit and enjoy a pint of beer from one of the brewery’s 12 taps.
See How Pittsburghers Used to Get Around

See How Pittsburghers Used to Get Around

This rare video gives you a passenger's perspective of street car trolley travel in the 1960s.
Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

In a pair of TV ads, watch the Steelers' running back tackle styling the hair of his two adorable daughters.
Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

The international organization partnered with local materials science company Covestro to encourage scientific curiosity for girls.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

In Lawrenceville, a love for letterpress leads to a business whose greeting cards reach audiences across the country.
Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

This third Renaissance has allowed us to be spectators as Pittsburgh changed from a city suffering the damages wrought by the collapse of its steel industry to a vibrant, active place known for its academic, medical and technology sectors.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Beer News: East End Brewing Moving to Bigger Space in Strip District

Beer News: East End Brewing Moving to Bigger Space in Strip District

The new space, called the East End Brewery Taproom, will offer lunch and dinner service, expanded hours and a place for customers to sit and enjoy a pint of beer from one of the brewery’s 12 taps.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

City leaders considered many options for Pittsburgh's confluence including something that looked like it was designed by the Jetsons, or an absolutely bonkers, batpoop insane idea by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

The Strip District distillers will launch a hard cider business this fall.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

Easy access from universities, wallet-friendly prices and really good food make these our favorite choices for the university set.

Comments


Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

The LGBTQ-friendly variety show offers one of the city's most unusual (and often unforgettable) lineups of comedic talent.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

The Panthers are going to get to the Broncos eventually. When that happens, Peyton Manning is going to be forced to throw it. And once that happens, it’s going to get ugly.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Lighten up your look with a cheerful necklace.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

Our reviews of "Hail, Caesar!," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "The Choice."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Real Pittsburgh Weddings 2016: Seven Adorable Moments

Real Pittsburgh Weddings 2016: Seven Adorable Moments

To coincide with the launch of our Spring 2016 Weddings magazine, we’ve created a Week of Wedded Bliss — seven stories to introduce you to the couples featured in our Real Pittsburgh Weddings. On Day One, we compile seven of our favorite moments.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Check out the new pillow collection from local interior designer Zach Mitchell. Plus, get the scoop on The Pittsburgh Christmas Carol Tour.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

The event is for high school students who are interested in criminal justice, law enforcement and forensic science.

Comments