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Advances in Human-Computer Interface Design:
A Report on the 14th Annual Symposium and Open House of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab

by Alan C. Rough
On Friday, May 30, 1997, the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) of the University of Maryland's Institute for Advanced Computer Studies held its 14th Annual Symposium and Open House, in College Park, Maryland. The symposium, with the theme of Universal Access, attracted 227 people to the College Park campus interested in learning more about HCIL's current research efforts. This was the largest audience for any HCIL symposium to date. Symposium attendees received copies of display images and Technical Reports for the presented papers and a videocassette: HCIL 1997 Reports, May 1997, all of which are available from HCIL (http://www.cs.umd.edu/projects/hcil/). Since so much of the material presented at the symposium was visual in nature, the videocassette provides graphic information which is impossible to explain adequately in print.

After the opening remarks by Richard Herman, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Ben Shneiderman, head of HCIL, spoke about the challenges of making informed decisions in an information rich environment. Important decisions are often based on an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the relevant data sets. The key is to present the data in a way that provides the decision maker with structured information that facilitates decision making with a high degree of success.

To illustrate one solution, he demonstrated Spotfire, a commercial product for data mining from IVEE Development (www.ivee.com). Spotfire uses a starfield display, originally developed at the University of Maryland, to view tens of thousands of data points with as many as five attributes per data point. (An unexpected bonus for conference attendees included the right to download a free copy of Spotfire for personal use.)

User Interface Design

The first address of the day was Elastic Windows for Rapid Multiple Window Management. Unfortunately, most World Wide Web (WWW) page designers do not make it easy to backtrack and navigate effectively and efficiently through a site. Elastic Windows offers an effective navigation tool for viewing multiple Web pages, in a screen filling, flexible, tiled environment. As links on WWW pages are accessed, all previously examined pages remain visible hierarchically organized into sub-groups in proportionally elastic, automatically resized windows. Multiple pages can also be opened as a single operation. It is easy to use and easy to understand, if difficult to describe. Figure 1 shows an Elastic Windows screen with multiple windows open side by side. (For further information, see http://www.cs.umd.edu/users/ kandogan/wwwscenario/script.html.) It is the kind of interface that sells itself immediately. You are continuously aware of your present and past locations in a site. Although Elastic Windows is not quite ready for distribution, it is one of a new generation of tools that will simplify WWW searching in the near future.

In the next presentation, Tightly Coupled Views, Chris North reviewed the Visible Human project, which demonstrates the strength of linked images. Images can be linked hierarchically, structurally and relationally. He noted that Elastic Windows is only one example of a tool that can link images and documents. Other tools also include the ability to provide synchronized scrolling between WWW documents and their HTML source code, for instance. All of these strategies offer information seekers a better sense of "place" as they navigate.

Further examples of linked data sets were presented in two papers which used LifeLines for personal histories. LifeLines had originally been developed by HCIL researchers for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice in order to track youth offender records. That research led in a new direction reported in Visualizing Medical Patient Records with LifeLines. It provides physicians with a single screen summary of visits, medications, lab reports, imaging, immunizations, hospitalizations, etc. When linked to pharmacological information, it has enough power and flexibility to monitor whether a patient is ordering too much or too little of prescribed medications. Patterns of doctor visits can also be observed.

To test the concept, further research led to a second paper on LifeLines: LifeLines vs. Tabular Format: An Experiment. Preliminary work suggests that inexperienced users can make correct assumptions from data faster and more accurately using LifeLines than with tabular information. Further research will test the concept with trained professionals and data sets that are further enhanced with exact dates, attribute decoding and the spread of overlapping events.

Not everyone is able to respond effectively to spacial and visual information. Some individuals respond better to verbal and auditory cues. In the talk, The Effects of Spacial Visualization Abilities on Dual Task Performance, researchers discussed the task of determining whether individuals with a low degree of spacial visualization ability (SVA) are at a disadvantage in a multitasking learning environment. If so, further research will suggest new ways to improve the performance of low SVA individuals.

Digital Visual Libraries

The second cluster of papers dealt with digital visual libraries and were introduced by Gary Marchionini of the University of Maryland's College of Library and Information Services. The first paper, titled Bringing Treasures to the Surface: Library of Congress National Digital Library Program, reviewed the University of Maryland's work in helping to design pages for LC's American Memory project. It was also an effective overview and tutorial of WWW page development strategies. The most effective strategies are to flatten the structure and to anchor users by keeping the "look and feel" of pages consistent. Numerous information filters and navigation tools were also developed or modified to assist the user in the prototype interface.

WebTOC was one of the navigation tools used to provide an overview browser of individual collections. Designed for the American Memory project, it automatically generates a hierarchical table of contents for a site which helps to visualize the scope of the data included in that site. These are working links to documents or images which can be retrieved as thumbnails or as full pages as needed.

NASA projects generate huge amounts of data in many formats including text, numerical data and visual images. Improving Access to Massive NASA/EOSDIS Networked Data: Overviews, Previews, and Dynamic Queries reviewed the Earth Observation System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) project, which will permit NASA data to be accessed over computer networks. Using the vast amount of data available, research has been conducted to create new data structures and algorithms for dynamic queries across the entire database. These algorithms are capable of eliminating zero-hit queries common to many networked databases. Experiments suggest that as many as 12 attributes can be searched as a set almost as quickly as four. The search results can include graphic representations of data as well as maps showing locations for the retrieved data sets.

Although most of the research presented at the HCIL symposium dealt with visual information, one program also dealt with recorded speech. Video Previews and Speech Analysis for the Retrieval of Multimedia Objects included a description of research beginning this summer which will analyze audio tapes of unknown contents. Researchers propose developing a comprehensive tool which will provide speech recognition as well as speaker identification. It will also generate robust transcripts from the recordings. Queries for phrases or concepts will build graphical displays of all information meeting the defined criteria. As one moves from result to result, the identified text would be displayed at the bottom of the screen on the conceptual prototype.

Related work on video browsing includes identifying the practical limits of key frame playback for video images. It has been determined by testing that video comprehension can be retained at a much higher frame rate than is possible for object recognition. Key frame analysis at a rate of 8 frames per second (fps) with frames selected every 200 frames provides a 50-fold increase in the speed of viewing a program at the standard speed of 30 fps effectively saving scholars precious time without sacrificing useful information. Other work described included alternative frame display options; for example 4 or 12 static key frames displayed or 12 animated key frames.

Learning Tools

The day's third set of papers reviewed learning tools. Researchers from the College of Education and the College of Library and Information Services presented the Baltimore Learning Community: An Interface Suite for Exploring and Using Learning Resources. This project, currently finishing the second year of its five-year life span, is being tested in three Baltimore City Public Schools. It is intended to assist teachers in developing multimedia units tied to specific outcomes. Components of the system include an explorer module providing dynamic query searching of videos, images, texts, Websites and previously constructed teaching modules. More than 1500 learning resources have been collected from several sources, including Discovery Communications, Inc., and the United States National Archives. Module construction incorporates instructional planning with the integration of available learning resources. The presentation component facilitates classroom instruction, the use of learning resources and video streaming. This project provides teachers with a powerful set of tools and collaboration options and researchers with numerous possibilities for future research.

The University of Maryland currently has two high-tech classrooms, or "teaching theaters," and a third under construction. Teaching/Learning in the High-Tech Classroom: Lessons Learned from Faculty and Students, reviewed the history and development of these facilities which were built to "transform the teaching/learning process, changing it from its traditional unidirectional information flow to a more collaborative environment." One important feature of these classrooms is the capability for students to ask questions anonymously. This seems to empower those students who are timid about asking questions verbally.

The final presentation of the day was a discussion titled Simulations in Engineering Education, Semiconductor Manufacturing Education and Training: Graphical User Interface Design Issues. The goal of this research is to construct a realistic model of time-dependent equipment and process behavior to train manufacturing operators, practicing engineers, undergraduate and graduate students. This kind of simulation is much less expensive and more flexible than physical simulators.

When the formal part of the symposium ended, the open house portion of the day allowed two and a half hours for visiting the various demonstration sites on campus. As the University of Maryland is a large campus, only the track team had time enough to visit all of the sites which were open. The facilities open for demonstration included most of the home sites for the research presented above, as well as the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility. This facility contains a human control station design for space robotics. Many HCIL projects from previous years were also available for hands-on testing.

The most impressive thing about this symposium is that all of the work described above was done by student and faculty researchers at a single institution. Much of that work is the result of the collaboration between many students and faculty members. Most of the papers were presented by the student members of these research teams. For some of the students this was the first professional presentation of their careers. They are performing cutting-edge research that will shape the way the world searches for, collects and manipulates data in all formats. And they are doing it well. The future appears to be in good hands.


Allan C. Rough is head of Nonprint Media Services at the University of Maryland College Park Libraries. He may be reached at ar21@umail.umd.edu.