Computer Science Expo Highlights The Power Of Programming

Departments: Computer Science

Robots, cutting-edge graphics technology and other computer-related projects were all on display at Friday's Computer Science Expo.

The event at the Sterling Library was organized by the joint Yale-Harvard introduction to computer science course (known as CPSC 100 at Yale, and CS50 at Harvard). Most of the projects demonstrated aren't specifically connected to the course, but were chosen as examples of what the powers of programming can do.

"This shows students the different directions they can go in once they have these skills," said computer science Prof. Brian Scassellati, who teaches the course at Yale.

A number of projects from Scassellati's Social Robotics lab were on display at the event. Among them was Ellie, a robot that works with children with autism. Laura Boccanfuso, a postdoctoral associate in the Technology and Innovation Lab at the Yale Child Study Center, said the robot is programmed to make "social mistakes" common among children with autism, such as not making eye contact, interrupting, or abruptly changing the topic of conversation.

"The kids hit a button when they see one of these mistakes," Boccanfuso said, adding that by acting as the teacher, the children more aware of these kinds of behaviors and more apt to change them. They're doing a data analysis and are getting ready to do a larger, six-to-eight week study.

At a neighboring table was another social robot, one designed to help infants with hearing impairments. It's programmed to spot and track certain colorful objects – a yellow rubber ducky, for instance, or a bright red ball. By doing so, it can better interact with the infants, aged six to 12 months by seeming more like a peer.

"We're hoping to get to the stage where it can play peek-a-boo," said Kate Tsui, a postdoctoral associate in the Social Robotics lab.

Broadly speaking, robots should do something – wash dishes, for instance, or direct traffic. But what about when they're not doing anything? That's a question Eli Block asks with his senior thesis project.

"How can it maintain a social connection?" he said standing by three small yellow robots, each demonstrating a different idling behavior – "motionless," "breathing" and "looking around." Block said that research has shown that robots can be very off-putting to their users if they'recompletely still during their idle time.

"We have not run the full study yet, but our hypothesis is that simpler behaviors that emphasize fluid motions will be the most effective idling behaviors," Block said.

Arts-related computer projects were also well-represented at the Expo.

From the lab of Holly Rushmeier and Julie Dorsey, Harry Shamansky talked up his senior thesis project, a new way to control theatrical lighting.

"It allows you to remain immersed in the drama," he said. For instance, instead of typing a long string of commands to change the lighting for a scene, he's created a more intuitive interface. For example, the system features a wire that allows the user to change the intensity of the lighting by bending it. That way, lighting directors can be more responsive to the action on the stage. He'll be using the technology next month with a production of the Sarah Kane play "4:48 Psychosis."

The ubiquity of multi-touch screens has opened up numerous possibilities for design. Unfortunately, most modeling systems still use mouse and keyboard interfaces. Patrick Paczlowski, a Ph.D. student in Dorsey and Rushmeier's lab, helped develop an alternative 3D modeling app for iPads. It allows users to assemble complex 3D scenes by manipulating sheets of virtual paper.

"We were inspired by origami - you can fold it or bend the corner," Paczlowski said. "It allows anyone with little experience with to create objects or scenes."