Fifty years ago, very few people would have foreseen a future where nearly everyone owned a machine that combined the phone, television, library, camera, map, and countless other functions into a pocket-sized package. It’s almost impossible to predict what technologies humans will use in another fifty years. But in the field of human-computer interaction, it’s never too early to start testing how people will use the devices of the future, and how those devices will, in turn, shape their users and society.
New UChicago CS Assistant Professor Pedro Lopes, who joined the department in January, takes on this heavy challenge through a combination of computer science, engineering, and art. In a career that has already pushed the limits of touchscreens, virtual reality, wearables, and muscle stimulation, Lopes blends creativity and science to invent, test, and philosophically interrogate tomorrow’s technology.
“We're trying to see what technologies could make sense in 30 or 40 or 50 years,” Lopes said. “A lot of human-computer interaction is making technology more useful. But I just make things more complicated...I'm more on the generating new ideas, new devices, new techniques level.”
Growing up in Portugal, Lopes was originally drawn to computer science as a creative pursuit, learning the basics of programming and hardware working with calculator games, music, and college radio. As an undergraduate at Technical University of Lisbon, Lopes realized that human-computer interaction (HCI) was a research area where he could best indulge his creative and tinkering interests in a research context.
For example, some of his early work on touchscreens drew upon his musical pursuits as an experimental turntablist to create a mulitouch table for DJing. Other touchscreen projects utilized sound to help smartphones distinguish between different types of contact, such as with a knuckle instead of a fingertip, to create new interfaces.
During his PhD work at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany, Lopes’ research evolved from phones to wearable devices, which have gained popularity through devices that, in most cases, passively measure a user’s activity. But Lopes was more interested in inversions of that relationship, adapting electrical muscle stimulation techniques originally developed for rehabilitating injuries to create devices capable of controlling the wearer’s body.