In 1998, when Beth Mynatt started work as an eager assistant professor at the College of Computing, she got in trouble because she wanted to be mundane. More precisely, she wanted to study the mundane activities of life and how computing could support them.
“I wanted to understand computing as part of, say, cooking, or just the everyday things people did,” says the now-full professor and director of the GVU Center—Georgia Tech’s largest interdisciplinary academic research center. “People are good at some things. Computing is good at some things. How do you design interactions for that partnership?”
Of course, what Mynatt was talking about during her assistant professor days was ubiquitous computing—before technology had improved to the point that such ideas were feasible. Today, the technology and research creativity behind ubiquitous computing has been so successful as to render the term itself nearly an anachronism—and Mynatt and her GVU colleagues have been right at the front, bringing computing into ever more “mundane” pockets of life.
GVU calls its research agenda “unlocking human potential” and has identified seven areas of human activity it wants to unlock: emotion, independence, wellness, learning, creativity, persuasion and trust. Together the seven themes—“all things that are fundamentally powerful about people,” Mynatt says—serve as guideposts by which GVU faculty might navigate their research goals and ambitions.
For example, one project that is living up to GVU’s ambition is UsableHealth.com, co-founded by research scientist Jiten Chhabra, one of Mynatt’s former students in human-computer interaction. The idea behind UsableHealth is to place computing between a person and that person’s diet, with computing shouldering the responsibility for tracking health goals and recommending diet choices that will help accomplish those goals.
The project so far has taken two forms: a kiosk, nicknamed “Dr. J Says” and set up in local restaurants such as Tin Drum in Tech Square, that recommends menu choices based on broad, non-personalized health goals; and a website that turns UsableHealth into a personalized nutrition tool, using personal information and customized health goals to suggest “meal swaps” that help users reach their goals. The site uses nutrition info from the menus of dozens of popular restaurants to make its meal-swap recommendations.
“You can’t just tell people to eat salads—they aren’t going to do that,” Mynatt says. “People know what their doctor told them to do, and they’re staring at a menu. It’s not that they don’t want to do the right thing; they’re just trying to figure out how to translate general medical advice into actionable information.”
“Beth is really good at maintaining the distinction between research and commercialization,” says Chhabra, who’s working to make UsableHealth.com into another College of Computing start-up success. “She’s been a big help in getting me in touch with researchers and industry people in this space. She’s also a fantastic relationship manager. She and I have learned together about health informatics, and it’s been a mutually beneficial learning curve. We’ve had to work a lot more closely together than just two subject matter experts, helping to develop this technology from the inside.”
Mynatt says she’s happy that Chhabra is the one worrying about investors and business models, though she’s had other commercial possibilities emerge from her Everyday Computing Lab.
One is called Digital Family Portrait, intended as a way to reassure families when an elderly parent or grandparent is living alone. The device, modeled to literally look like a picture frame, serves as a passive monitoring and active communication system, both keeping tabs on the elderly resident’s daily movements and serving as a communication interface with remote family.
“It all boiled down to families needing to have peace of mind,” Mynatt says. “We started with this idea that Digital Family Portrait can let you know if something’s wrong, but how might the computer know if something’s wrong? There are lots of ambiguities in daily life; how does the computer know if a person stayed in bed late because they just want to sleep late? We became very careful about portraying what was going on in a home without conveying a value assessment, like ‘Today’s a good day’ or ‘Today’s a bad day.’”
Mynatt’s team hit upon daily physical movement as a baseline for normal activity; that also means Digital Family Portrait is intended to be read by someone with an idea of what someone’s normal daily activity is—probably not a unknown caregiver or even a physician. It’s meant for family.
“I might see that my mom hadn’t gone out on Wednesday night when she normally does, and I’d see that something was different,” Mynatt says. “Then we brought in other forms of information like weather, so I could see that the weather was really lousy that Wednesday night, so Mom probably decided to stay in.”
The problem when Mynatt first developed Digital Family Portrait was that the necessary technology “wasn’t quite there yet,” she says. “[Distinguished Professor] Gregory [Abowd] said I was 10 years too early,” Mynatt says, noting that Apple’s iPad is basically the perfect interface for Digital Family Portrait.
“Now the technology’s cheaper, and there have been three or four attempts at a viable business model,” she says. “You try to set the wheels in motion, and occasionally I’ve come back and tried to push them a bit.”
Meanwhile the wheels Mynatt’s set in motion at the GVU Center have been spinning quite vigorously, with more than 70 faculty and hundreds of students working on more than 100 research projects. As director, Mynatt sees her job as setting up the intellectual scaffolding and then letting faculty build in the rest with their own creativity and innovation. She cites Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, published in 2004 by the National Academies, with providing the blueprint she’s tried to build at GVU.
“Industry tends to do this more successfully than academia because industry doesn’t have any moral problems with putting social scientists next to computer scientists next to economists,” she says. “The formula is: You help define a space. You create an umbrella that is compelling and that people can see themselves in. At GVU, it became this notion of unlocking human potential.
“Some people buy into it 100 percent, some people buy into it 50 percent,” Mynatt says. “It doesn’t really matter. As long as people can see themselves in it, it does the work it needs to.”