Juan Pablo Hourcade, Computer Science

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

When one of Juan Pablo Hourcade’s graduate students approached him about doing research on multi-touch displays, the UI computer science professor said, “Well, you know, we need to find a useful application for this beyond doing neat things in news broadcasts.”

Many people had seen the technology, which can sense multiple finger touches on a display at one time, because of its use in the 2008 presidential elections.

Hourcade focuses his research on human-computer interaction, and more specifically on using technology and computing to help people outside of the mainstream—largely children and older adults. He began talking to colleagues about how to use the multi-touch displays. One of his colleagues in developmental psychology, who has a son with Asperger’s syndrome, thought it might be useful for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Since then, Hourcade has developed free, open source software designed for multi-touch displays. The software has been released as Open Autism Software and was designed to conduct activities to enhance the social skills of children with autism spectrum disorders.

Hourcade recently sat down with fyi to talk about Open Autism Software and a few other open source projects he’s working on.

Could you tell me a bit about the free, open source software you created for children with autism spectrum disorders?

Most kids within the autism spectrum are really interested in technology and computers. They’re very different from each other—the population has a huge variability—but most of them are really into computers and technology in some form. The real challenge for kids with autism is social skills—engaging with other people. The danger of using computers in a traditional way is that you can end up isolating the kids even more—they’re still just by themselves without contact from other people while they use a computer. The advantage of the displays is that they can be attracted to them and interested because they’re computers, but at the same time they can do something together with someone else. The applications are for use by kids together, either using the display at the same time or taking turns. We designed activities around the software to encourage collaboration and cooperation for the students by enjoying an activity with someone else.

Most of the software that already exists out there is really expensive. Why did you decide to create free, open source software?

Exactly for that reason. We were surprised because we were looking for ideas and materials to use as inspiration for designing the software. We found very little free material—even just picture cards to print out for free. The software you can find often is really expensive. Picture cards that allow kids to communicate when they can’t speak, a set can cost you $100. We weren’t convinced that what was out there was all that good. It was easy for me to say, “Let’s make this free and open source.” That was one part of it.

A few of my favorite things

Hummus (I actually make it myself)
Yerba mate (tea)—I drink it every morning
Latin pop and rock
The X-Files

To learn more about Hourcade and to access any of the software visit www.cs.uiowa.edu/~hourcade.

The other part was that, when meeting with parents groups here in Iowa City, you see a community that’s really involved. They are trying really hard to do what’s best for their kids, more than any community I’ve seen, actually. We worked with students at Hoover Elementary in Iowa City and Four Oaks in Cedar Rapids. This is completely anecdotal, but I noticed many parents, especially fathers of the kids, were in engineering or computer science. We might do some basics for the applications here, but parents might take over and make them better or customize them for their kids. That’s one reason to put the code out there.

Additionally, we must think long-term, make the project more sustainable. Let’s say something happens tomorrow and I can’t come back to work for some reason. Everything I’ve worked on is completely lost to the community. At least by putting it out there, someone else can pick it up.

What other types of research are you doing?

I’m working on another open source software called PointAssist. It started as a way of helping young children use the mouse as a pointing device more easily when they first start using the computer. Usually when young children use the mouse they don’t have too much trouble getting near, say, an icon, but when they get near it they have a hard time getting the cursor on the icon. We see all this motion back and forth. I thought, maybe if we could detect that kind of movement we could slow the speed of the cursor so there is more precision in those cases. We did a study with 4-year-olds in Iowa City and it worked very well. It shot up their accuracy and they could do things faster. The software runs in the background, so it automatically applies to every software application on your computer.

Although we developed it for kids, it was suggested that we try it out with other people having trouble with pointing. The next most accessible population here was a group of older adults. We were lucky to connect with Natalie Denburg in psychology and neurology. She had a cohort of older adults who work with her and we did something kind of risky. We took the software we did for the kids, made no adjustments, and tried it on the older adults. It helped them too. That’s another good thing about this: instead of helping all the time, it only helps you when you need help. Now one of my students is working on extending it to people with Parkinson’s.

You recently organized a group called HCI for Peace, which encourages the use of computing to promote peace and prevent conflict. Could you tell me more about that?

I think that comes more from my personal values. I think peace is an extremely important value in the research community and in my work. I see a lot of research being dedicated to make war easier to wage, but almost nothing for peace. What I’ve been trying to do is to raise awareness within my research community on this topic, by saying, “Hey, this is important. We need to not be afraid of doing this kind of research.” I try to get people to start thinking of specific things that can be done, and to get away from the idea that it’s just something that is too vague or too idealistic to actually do some research on.

What is one word you would use to describe yourself and why?

Helpful. I try to be helpful to my students, my colleagues, the people who serve as research subjects…just people in general. I’m really trying to help.

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