ARCHIVED - Humans and Computers -- Why Can't We Be Friends?

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March 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Image of finger on a number pad

Ask Dr. Janice Singer how to program her VCR, and the demonstration may take a few minutes, perhaps much longer. Singer, program leader for the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research group at the NRC Institute for Information Technology (NRC-IIT), willingly offers to be a subject for this kind of experiment. The purpose is not self-humiliation but to demonstrate the problems created when products supposedly designed for mass-market use fail miserably when actually put into use.

The HCI Program consists of 16 members and represents the largest single group of researchers in Canada devoted to the field of HCI and committed to creating better user experiences. Singer offers a straightforward explanation of the program's mandate. "If it's got a processor in it, whether it's your fridge or your computer, we're interested in studying it. Our work involves improving existing products, but it's also about envisioning entirely new technologies and applications," she notes.

The value of this work is enormous. According to Singer, improved user experiences result in greater productivity, stimulate innovation through new uses of technology, increase user enjoyment and help serve the needs of diverse user groups. And, there is vast room for improvement.

Landmarks to support navigation in 3D virtual environments. These landmarks help the user determine position and orientation as he flies through the molecule. The arrow on the right serves to adjust the molecule's transparency and travels with the user's viewpoint.
Landmarks to support navigation in 3D virtual environments. These landmarks help the user determine position and orientation as he flies through the molecule. The arrow on the right serves to adjust the molecule's transparency and travels with the user's viewpoint.

Researchers from NRC-IIT recently presented the results of some of their recent work as part of an ongoing seminar NRC seminar series known as Mind in Matter – Behavioural Sciences at NRC. Singer, a cognitive psychologist by training, is herself focused on creating better and more usable programming tools for software engineers so that they can in turn create better products for users. Other researchers from NRC-IIT presented findings on improving e-Learning, new Web authoring tools, and tools for accessing, indexing and exploring streaming media such as audio and video. Each of these technologies has become more and more prevalent, yet each needs continual improvement and change to meet users' goals.

Despite the range of research interests, the tools and approaches of all these researchers are all focused on understanding the behaviour and conditions surrounding usage of these technologies. Here are two examples presented at the conference.

Even security experts can get the blues

Our capacity for memory is fragile at best. Memorizing seven (plus or minus two) numbers is about the limit. Our memory decays over time, but strengthens with repetition. We cannot forget on demand and, overall, we have stronger recall of gist and meaning rather than detail. Do current computer and network security systems respond to these needs? According to NRC-IIT researcher Dr. Andrew Patrick, the answer is no.

He notes that security systems often demand passwords of a certain length and with specific characters, giving users little or no choice. These same systems also force users to create new passwords at pre-determined times and forget old ones. And, if you forget your current password or PIN number, it's the three strike rule; three failed attempts and you are locked-out. Patrick suggests that relaxing the three-strike rule would increase memory and reduce the number of calls for tech support without necessarily representing major risk for systems. In the absence of such changes, people will continue to write down passwords and adopt other practices that, from a privacy and security point of view, are highly unsafe.

Social psychology also has an impact. "People who are highly security conscious can be perceived by co-workers as paranoid. At the same time, many users assume that they are 'not important' enough to represent a target for hackers, or feel helpless that, no matter what the password, if hackers want to get in, they will," he notes. All of these extremes need to be understood and taken into account as part of efforts to create security systems that are balanced between the need to keep information safe while respecting the need for employees to easily use the system.

Giving Astronauts a helping hand

It's Saturday, and there a number of household chores that require attention – leaves to be swept off the back deck, windows to wash and a latch on the gate that has rusted shut. Imagine that you have the capability of performing these tasks without going outside, but that you were confined to the basement with little or no view of the outside. Instead, you had to rely on robotized tools and cameras to help you guide these tools. How do you quickly find the camera that will give you the view you need to do you work? Choosing from a list of cameras is time consuming because there are numerous cameras each at a different location, each aimed at a different angle and each giving a different field of view. Often, it's a case of trial-and-error finding the right camera for the job.

Planned network of 18 cameras to see the exterior of the International Space Station.
Planned network of 18 cameras to see the exterior of the International Space Station.

This situation is very similar to the one faced by astronauts on the International Space Station, where there are few windows and where there will be a network of 18 cameras (including 4 on the Canadarm 2) to see the exterior of the station when it is completed. After spending time understanding more about how the system is used, Jean François Lapointe, an NRC-IIT researcher, came up with a new method that could help astronauts quickly and efficiently find the camera they need to carry out their work. With the new tool, camera locations and the area covered by each of these cameras are shown on an interactive 3D display of the space station. Users can easily navigate through the scene, finding and then clicking on the appropriate camera to bring it into operation.

This proof-of-concept interface is a good example of the power of interactive 3D to increase the situational awareness of users through visualization. It is particularly useful for complex structures such as the space station, where the users can get both a global and local view of the work site.


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