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It's Electrick! Talking Computer Interfaces with Yang Zhang

Introducing Yang Zhang, a second-year PhD. student from Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. Yang is the creator of a project called Electrick, with a mission to turn everyday objects into touchscreens for computers. You can read more at http://figlab.com

A podcast is below as well as a lightly edited transcript. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Zach: Tell me a little bit about the mission of Electrick and how you got started?

Yang: Hi everyone my name is Yang Zhang, I'm a second year PhD at Carnegie Mellon.

The mission for Electrick is related to touch interactions. They have proven very successful and popular. It's on our phones, tablets; everything has touch interactions now. But, the problem of existing touchscreen technologies is that they are best suited for only small and flat applications. If you go big, it becomes extremely expensive, easily over thousands of dollars.

The mission of Electrick is to first enable touch interactions on objects with irregular surfaces, such as a guitar, our chairs, a table, and even toys. And secondly, we're trying to make it super low cost so it can become feasible to scale to large surfaces such as big walls.

We also want to enable hobbyists and makers to play around with our technology. That's the idea behind this project and how we got started.

Zach: What what led you, or compelled you, to work on this project or this idea?

Yang: I feel like, current computing resources are wonderful. Computers are one of the most powerful tools we ever invented. But, if you look at how we interact with computers nowadays, we just touch our phones or sit in front of our laptop and start typing or moving a mouse. That's very efficient, but I feel like there should be more ways for us to interact.

Low fidelity interactions can still be helpful, meaning touch on everyday objects to turn them into smart objects. Or, an object that can detect where it is moved, leading to interactions with our computing resources. That is why we are motivated to develop Electrick.

Zach: Wow, that's a big idea! Could you describe some of your experience or your background in the field?

Yang: I'm a second year PhD student working with my professor and advisor Chris Harrison at Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science. Our department name is Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

We have been inventing mobile sensors and interfaces to make the connection between users and computing resources more natural and efficient.

For me, specifically, my background is in electrical engineering. Previously, I've been working on smartwatch projects where you can touch your skin around the smartwatch to turn it into a touchpad. You can play Angry Birds, for instance, by dragging and dropping the bird on your skin. But in general, our group has been working on new interfaces between the computer and the human.

Zach: Every great innovation starts with an Angry Birds application :)

What are some of the technologies, or innovations, that allow you to bring this to life now versus what wasn't previously available?

Yang: Let me introduce this technology a little bit and talk about the jargon and technical terms. The technology behind it is very similar to how our touch screen works. When the user's finger touches an electric field, it will draw part of the electric current through your body to the ground.

It's called a shunting effect. Shunting effects are in many applications; one example is our touchscreens. Our technique is not that different from previous research or projects like touchscreens. Our contribution, or innovation, happened when we used this shunting effect with our sensing scheme.

This enables us to leverage it across complex geometry on a large surface in a cheap way. So, there's some effort that we've put into this project to make it happen. For example, explorations in materials and research on the sensing schemes enable the same technology as the touchscreen but on a whole new class of objects.

Zach: Wowza. You've been touching on it a little bit, but could you describe what your vision is for Electrick? What do you see as the big picture impact that it can have on the world?

Yang: That's a great question. For Electrick; we saw this huge gap between the physical world and digital world. Or, the user and the computing resources. So how do we bring this gap closer together? How do we enable this task tracking on everything?

This is a first step towards turning everyday objects into smart objects. Previously, without touch sensing, it's just a dummy object. Now, if you activate touch interaction, there are a lot of cool possible applications.

Everything from educational materials to the surfaces of automobiles can be interactive. So, we get a lot of useful and disparate feedback and ideas from other researchers. Recently, I've been getting e-mails from people that are interested in this technology.

It's amazing to see the ideas people are coming up with for Electrick; it's inspiring. I feel this will enable a lot of useful applications in the future.

Zach: That's amazing! It sounds like those are the good parts. Now, let's talk about some hard parts. What are your biggest pain points right now in developing this project further?

Yang: I feel like the biggest pain point right now is this is still a research project. There is some distance between a research project and a commercial product that people can use in real life.

To make this technology accessible to a broader audience, we have to make it robust and do a lot of stress tests to know the durability and stability of different weathers and pressures and different users. Right now we're focused on the research part of it and showing it's feasible to do this.

The lab demo is in a controlled environment, but, we are willing to collaborate with other companies to make our technologies embedded into the process of manufacturing mass production goods. That is something I'm hoping to see in the future development of this technology.

Zach: Is that what you're looking for right now for Electrick? Finding those industry partners who can embed this into their current products or applications of the technology?

Yang: Yes, we're looking forward to working closely with them, because we have the resources and equipment to manufacture the object in a massive way. For example, in the paper, we show this is possible to do with 3D printing, but in reality, none of our tables or chairs or keyboards we use is 3-D printed.

3-D printing is a cool prototype technology, but, it's not how we fabricate our products. Now, we're looking forward to developing this collaboration with other companies. We're willing to provide our insights on this technology, and hopefully, through this collaboration, we can commercialize this technology soon so that real users can purchase, or get access to this technology.

Zach: That's amazing. As someone who lives in Pittsburgh, do you have any specific advice for other founders in Pittsburgh? Or, any resources that were helpful for you?

Yang: I might not be senior enough to provide advice for other founders. But, as a PhD student, this is my fourth year living in Pittsburgh. I've been enjoying it so much.

Pittsburgh is a city where ideas meet technology. CMU has many talented students and professors working on a lot of cool technologies. My lab is called the Future Interfaces Group, and it's one lab in HCII, which is the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.

I feel very proud to be a part of the innovation trend currently happening at CMU and Pittsburgh. If other founders in Pittsburgh are interested, we're willing to show demos of the technology and our other cool work from our group.

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