human/machine devices and paradigms
"Where the bits meet the flesh..."
As a human interface specialist, researcher Tom Zimmerman explores the frontiers of human-machine interaction. He co-founded the field of virtual reality with his Data Glove invention, is a self-described “gadgeteer” and has long been interested in how people and technology are affected by each other – where the bits meet the flesh, so to speak. You might even consider that his calling.
One area Tom is currently working in is biometrics – or measuring a physical feature or behavior to help verify someone’s identity. What started as a first-of-a-kind project to improve a New Zealand airline’s customer service has become a dependable security measure. Several years ago, Tom developed a wireless personal digital assistant (PDA) for the customer-focused airline to streamline passenger check-in. Part of the project had the passenger’s name and picture from a central database pop up on a screen when the passenger arrived at the gate. This allowed airline personnel to confirm that passengers were at the correct gate and greet each customer by name.
In the wake of 9/11, the same biometric technology can be used for security purposes to help identify passengers when they arrive at their gates. Because the photo identification originates from a “trusted traveler” database, it cannot be altered the way a driver’s license or passport can.
Tom’s research in biometrics has also led him to develop technologies for use in banking and retail settings – for example, using digitally captured handwritten signatures to verify payment. “Forgers can make the image of a signature look accurate,” he explains. “But what we look at is the dance of the pen on the pad, the actual choreography of the hand as it scribbles.” Technique is much more difficult to reproduce than a static image is -- and dynamic signature verification is far more customer-oriented than using fingerprints to verify payments.
Self-checkout technology is another area of interest for Tom. But this is not your typical self-checkout where the customer takes products to the front of the store at the end of a shopping trip to scan them all at once. Tom is working on a system for cart-based checkout, which allows customers to check out items while they’re shopping simply by scanning them with a cart-mounted device and placing them in the cart. Addressing the store managers’ security concern that shoppers will add items to carts without scanning them and meeting the level of convenience that customers expect is a great challenge in this field. “There’s usually a tradeoff between access or convenience and security,” Tom says. “This is where the art comes in – striking a balance between the capability of the technology and the cooperation of people. You need them to work together, but in the end, you’re there to serve people.”
Tom has also made a foray into education – an area he hopes to grow. He volunteers at an elementary school, teaching computer animation and robotics, and at a high school, helping students with their science fair projects. Working with children to help them learn how to program computers, Tom created a barcode system that had students arrange a deck of cards in a sequence to write computer programs. Each card has a computer instruction on it. He was inspired to invent this system by the students’ fascination with cartoon trading-card games and the need in many school systems for several children to share access to one computer. With the barcode system, the students can write programs at their desks, and then scan the barcode on each card to load their programs onto the classroom computer. This method uses tangible objects to ground abstract technological ideas in the physical world. Tom’s idea that learning can be enhanced when students have something to hold or touch is an extension of his
long-standing interest in the physical aspects of how people interact with technology.
“Much of my life has been wiring up people to computers and finding ways to connect the physical body to the simulated world,” says the gadgeteer. Whether it’s sending electronic business cards with a handshake or preventing airbag injuries in automobiles, the frontiers of Tom’s research – while continually expanding the capabilities of technology – always seem to have a human touch.