Pourang Irani - Designing Interactive Devices of the Future
by Maureen Paisley
Posted 24 July 2009
Personal mobile devices, such as cell phones, are becoming increasingly popular and sophisticated.  Pourang Irani, Computer Science, has been awarded $50 thousand from the Manitoba Government to transform mobile devices so that they can be used to interact with and manipulate information on large public screens.

Instead of using expensive and highly specialized equipment, the goal of the grant is to allow users to access, interact with, and transform 3D spatial data with input devices that most of us carry with us.

"Display as well as 3D technology is becoming cheaper," says Irani, "and we are looking for ways for people to use tools they currently own to use, interact with and share information on larger displays."  The displays could be hanging on boardroom walls, laid flat on a table or even at home on your own coffee table or in your living room.  People can share pertinent information and then interact with it: for example, they can share photos or text, or extract information from their personal devices.

Irani is co-director of the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory at the University of Manitoba, and his interest lies not only in inventing new interactive devices, but also, in improving how we interact with them.  The point and click technology that is so common today was developed in the 1960's, and although it is a technology that works well, it is not the most intuitive system.  New devices that facilitate more natural forms of interaction are needed.

In the HCI lab, Irani and his students work on the development of tools that use natural fluid motions to interact with technology; they use metaphors from daily life, and incorporate them into the devices.  "To transfer a picture from your cell phone to a screen," explains Irani, "you wouldn't double-click a mouse on a table-top; using the technology we are developing, you would extend your arm using the same motion as if you actually placed the photo on the screen with your hand."  The idea is to make the next generation of devices work in ways that are closer to what the natural physical movements would be.

Irani didn't start his career with the intention of working with computers. His father, an engineer, used to take him to job sites, and the young Irani was intrigued with architecture and the design elements that came to life at the construction site.

After finishing high school, Irani was not able to apply directly to architecture, so he applied to science instead with the intention of moving into engineering, and ultimately, architecture. During his undergraduate degree, he developed a liking for computer science.

For his Senior-Year Project, he developed a software scheduling system for nursing home staff in New Brunswick, and that project made an impact on him. "I noticed that although the scheduling staff could visualize the schedule on paper, as they had constructed it many times over the years, they had problems converting from the paper process to the automated system," recalls Irani.  The steps involved in using a mouse and moving through screens were not natural to them: "it was like they had some sort of a block when using the system," he explains.

For the project, he spent a lot of time and effort gathering the requirements and understanding users' needs - even delving into detailed union contract agreements.  The system he developed was so successful that he co-founded a company in New Brunswick, and the software is used in many different facilities in the Atlantic Provinces and Ontario.

It is an experience that Irani shares with his students and something that has motivated him throughout his education and research: understanding the users' needs and how they interact with technology.  And not surprisingly, it has rudimentary connections with architecture.

The architectural elements of "form follows function" that intrigued him at the construction sites were there in computer science and particularly in human-computer interaction, and they have been influencing factors in his research and teaching.

He also carries this interest to developments in the visual displays on the screen. "People, today, want rapid information on demand," says Irani. "We work on ways of displaying information so that, at a glance, people can understand the message without reading large amounts of text," he explains.  When people access the web to look for information, they want it in a form that is visually comprehensible.  "When you access a map, you generally want distance information, and making that easily accessible and comprehensible creates understandable output," says Irani.  Again, form follows function.

As technology evolves and develops, screens will no longer be limited to the flat format we see today.  3D technology will soon become more accessible and will introduce new ways of interacting with devices and understanding input.

Irani tells his students to "follow your passion."  And, as his experience shows, it can lead you to some unexpected and unusual places.

Irani's group is working on cutting edge of these technologies, and has several pending patent applications.

Pourang Irani, Computer Science

l-r; Pourang Irani, with students: Hong Zhang, Erum Tanvir, David McCallum and Taylor Sando, in the Human Computer Interaction Lab.


Human-Computer Interaction Lab

Dr. Irani's website