Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Behind a nondescript door in the University of Iowa’s Main Library is a portal to another dimension.

Actually, it’s a driving simulator. Professor Haowei Hsieh built it with a weighted accelerator and brake pedals, a Porsche steering wheel, and three large-screen monitors displaying the details of the road and the digital world rolling by. Stabilizers respond and shift as you steer, accelerate, and stop, often inducing dizziness in drivers.

But what is it doing in the library? Hsieh, assistant professor in the UI School of Library and Information Science, says he often gets this question when people see his driving simulator (not a driving game, he is quick to point out).

Hsieh, who fashioned the frame of the car in his wood-working shop at home, has always loved driving. After he arrived at the UI campus, he toured the renowned National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), and began to think how he could construct a simulator to do his own research.

He was encouraged to explore the project by a senior faculty member. His simulator uses computer programmed driving courses and scenarios from the NADS lab.

Still, how does a driving simulator connect to library and information science?

As cars become more technologically sophisticated, with hands-free, voice-activated mp3 and Bluetooth connections, drivers increasingly interact with technology and consume a lot of digital information.

“The Internet is going into cars really soon,” says Hsieh. “There are actually some that have it already, and information access is everywhere.”

We often need more information while driving, Hsieh says. He says GPS maps make it easier for us to perceive linear directions, and their color-coded topology delivers more information than we realize.

“Instantly you get information,” says Hsieh. “How do you describe a map using any language? Even for giving directions, it’s much easier to just show a map.”

But we also know digital distractions behind the wheel are dangerous.

Hsieh notes that some GPS devices have a feature that doesn’t allow you to operate it while the vehicle is moving, locking up the touch screen when movement is detected. But he says the first thing most users do if they can is disable that lock.

Rather than abolish technology in cars, Hsieh would rather consider ways it can be harnessed toward safe and efficient driving.

“Of course you can make laws to prevent certain things from happening,” says Hsieh, “but I think it’s more practical to design interfaces that are more effective and less distracting, so you can get things done quicker and get back to driving.”

Because driving is a critical task requiring attention and focus, Hsieh says the simulator is an excellent platform to test a human-centered computer interface.

Before getting his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in computer science, Hsieh earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. He spent a lot of time studying safety systems to minimize human error, which meant developing a superior interface.

“I’m really interested in human-computer interaction, and in nuclear engineering, we studied a lot of system design,” says Hsieh. “In all the systems we deal with, the operators are human, and human error was at the root of all the nuclear accidents we studied.”

Hsieh says this preventive troubleshooting approach to nuclear engineering connects with his driving simulation research.

The D.I.Y Institute of Technology

As a child in Taiwan, Haowei Hsieh got bored with his toys easily. Within a few days he would exhaust the capabilities of his latest plaything. Then his father brought home one of the first consumer computers.

Soon Hsieh discovered he could alter the functionality of this new device simply by changing something called “software.”

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’” says Hsieh. “I realized you can load a different game and have a different world. That’s a software change.”

While his peers used this new device mostly to play games, Hsieh spent the summer before junior high scrutinizing the user’s manual, letter-by-letter, page-by-page. He memorized the commands and started writing basic programs.

“I didn’t even understand English,” he says. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘print’ meant. I just memorized P-R-I-N-T, and knew that would generate something on the screen.”

Now Hsieh sometimes tells his students in the UI School of Library and Information Science not to complain about their struggles learning the intricacies of programming.

“This is your native language,” says Hsieh. “I learned to program without even knowing English.”
What he teaches and why

The School of Library and Information Science students are required to take Hsieh’s Computing Foundations class. He strives to make the class fun and interesting, but he also pushes his students.

“You may not like it, but you should at least understand how a programmer thinks a little bit,” he says.

“If you don’t want to be a programmer in the future, that’s fine, but you need to be able to talk to a geek,” he adds with a laugh. “You need to know how to interact with one.”

Many library science students come from humanities backgrounds, and some tell Hsieh their brains are not wired to master computers. However, he says if they open their minds and learn new technology, they’ll be equipped to apply it in intriguing new ways, thanks to their background in other subjects.

“Content is increasingly important, and these students are interested in content,” says Hsieh. “If they have enough of a technology background to support this, they will be really valuable in the future.”