CMU's Brad Myers

August 22, 2005
Technology Research News Editor Eric Smalley carried out an email conversation with Carnegie Mellon University professor Brad Myers during the summer of 2005 that touched on cell phones, remotes, difficult software, email triage, anti-intellectualism and a future where we're all managers.

Myers is a Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, a user interface design and implementation consultant, author of Creating User Interfaces by Demonstration and Languages for Developing User Interfaces, and editorial board member of five journals.

His research interests include user interface development systems, user interfaces, hand-held computers, programming by example, programming languages for kids, visual programming, interaction techniques, window management, and programming environments.

Myers is a principal investigator for several projects at Carnegie Mellon: the Pebbles Hand-Held Computer Project, Natural Programming, User Interface Software, and Demonstrational Interfaces.

He received a PhD in computer science at the University of Toronto, and MS and BSc degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

TRN: What got you interested in science and technology?

Myers: When I was in high school, back in the "old days" (the 1970's), my school only had one computer terminal, an old teletype printer connected to a time-sharing computer off at a local company.

However, my Senior year in high-school, I ended up with every-other period free. If I would have had a block of time, I might have taken a college course, but since I didn't, I had to stay at my high school, and so I went to the room with the computer terminal, which no-one else was using, and went through the programming text book on my own (in the original Basic language).

This only took a few weeks, so I spent the rest of the year making fun programs for myself. That got me hooked on programming, and I went to MIT for college mainly to study computers. There, I got interested in graphics and user interfaces, and have been working in the same areas ever since, trying to make computers easier for people to use.

TRN: Tell me about the trends in human-computer interaction. What are the pluses and minuses of these technologies as they exist today? What do you see as the most urgent needs in these areas?

Myers: An important area is dealing with information overload. I personally get about 900 spam emails a day, plus about 100 real emails that I have to deal with. There is also all the web pages and newsgroups with interesting information I would like to keep up with. How can computers help with this?

Another important trend is the increasing capabilities on mobile phones. Cell phones are now the world's largest consumer electronics business, and each generation of phones has more capabilities. Phones now have more memory and processor speed than "real" computers of just a few years ago. How can we make effective use of these devices without making them too complex?

TRN: What are some ideas for accomplishing this?

Myers: One of the barriers to good phone usability is the necessity of trying to map lots of functions to a very small number of buttons and a tiny screen.

One way to make it easier is to bypass this problem by using other displays and controls in the environment instead of the ones on the phone itself. For example, if the phone is near a TV or a PC, that bigger display could be used instead of the one on the phone.

When speech recognition improves, this will ease many of the tasks that are currently difficult on phones.

Another approach is to try to make the interfaces more intelligent, and use context and history to try to eliminate some of the required entries, by having the device figure things out for itself. For example, rather than requiring the user to set whether the phone should be on vibrate or audio, the phone could detect its location and look at the user's calendar, and use those to tell if the user is in a meeting, in a movie theater, or at home.

TRN: Why are computers difficult to use, at least for large numbers of people? What will change that?

Myers: Partially, computers are hard to use because companies that create the hardware and software haven't focused on making them better. Many companies still aren't aware that there even is an area of "Human-Computer Interaction" (HCI), and that there are specialists in that area who can improve products.

Other companies know about HCI, but make a business decision that it isn't worth the money to improve their product's user interfaces. People seem to prefer a lower-cost item rather than one that is easier to use. Consumers need to demand a higher level of usability for their products, so that manufacturers will realize that it pays to spend money on it.

Another reason for products being hard to use, though, is just the increasing complexity of what we want computers to do. Office XP supplies thousands of commands that the user can use, and each command is useful to at least some people. But this sheer number of commands means that the user has much more difficulty finding the particular command relevant to the task at hand.

TRN: Tell me about the Pebbles project.

Myers: "Pebbles" is a large-scale research project to investigate how handheld devices can be used when they are communicating with a "regular" personal computer (PC), with other handhelds, and with appliances such as telephones, radios, microwave ovens, automobiles, and factory equipment.

The Pebbles project started in the fall of 1997 when an undergraduate came to me and wanted to do a project using the Palm Pilot. I had recently been in a meeting where we were trying to collaborate on the design of a computer application, and noticed the difficulty people in the meeting had pointing and controlling the PC, since only one person could be at the keyboard and mouse at a time. But a number of people had Palm Pilots that they would occasionally use to take notes.

I had the idea that maybe each person could use their own handheld device to interact with the main PC. The vision was that eventually, handheld devices would be able to communicate wirelessly with the PC, which wasn't possible in 1997, but is in fact commonplace today.

Most palm-size devices (... personal digital assistants, or PDAs) incorporate BlueTooth wireless technology, and most mobile phones have PDA capabilities, and can communicate with PCs using the cell-phone network and often using BlueTooth as well. Once the handhelds are communicating, all sorts of exciting possibilities are opened up, and we have developed many applications to explore them.

TRN: Can you give me some examples of these possibilities and applications?

Myers: As part of the Pebbles project, we have created a wide variety of applications.

For example, one allows a handheld to serve as the keyboard and mouse for a regular computer. This is useful in meetings, and when using a remote computer.

Another application, called SlideShow Commander, allows users to use the handheld as a remote control for PowerPoint, showing on the handheld thumbnails of the slides, the notes of each slide, the list of titles, etc. These applications are available for downloading from our web site.

Our current research is investigating how a handheld can be used as a remote control for everyday appliances, such as stereos, TVs, VCRs, and copiers.

Since the handheld is personal, it could generate interfaces that are consistent across all devices, so, for example, the time could be set the same way on an alarm clock and a VCR to specify when to start recording.

TRN: What do you think of the notions of pervasive/ubiquitous computing and the data utility, and ultimately the idea that computing will cease to be an activity consciously entered into using specialized devices?

Myers: Certainly, virtually all electronic devices in our lives are now becoming computerized, so computation is clearly ubiquitous. And almost everyone is carrying around their personal computer at all times, in terms of their cell phone.

Although some people now use their cell phones (or particularly RIM Blackberries) to read and send short messages and even email, there is no substitute for a real computer for composing or reading large documents. For most white-collar work, typing on a regular keyboard is the most effective way to get text into a computer, and reading on a big screen at a desk is the best way to get information out of a computer.

TRN: What is the RADAR project, and how is it different from the various other attempts at building a digital assistant worthy of the term?

Myers: Radar is a large five-year research project in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science. The overall goal is to develop a software-based "cognitive personal assistant" that will help busy military commanders and managers to work more effectively, with less time wasted on routine tasks.

I think that Radar is interesting because it is one of the first projects to involve significant collaboration between AI researchers focusing on making the system learn about the user, and HCI researchers focusing on how to make intelligent assistance useful and usable for real people doing real tasks.

TRN: How much do art and entertainment drive innovation, in general and for computer interfaces?

Myers: Much of the graphics and sound hardware that is now available on everyone's PCs was driven by the need to provide performance for computer games.

Now, mainstream applications are finding ways to make use of the fancier graphics and sound as well. For example, with Windows XP and Apple's OS X, we are seeing more and more "cinematic" elements in the operating system and applications, like fading and zooming of windows. Currently, these are mostly just to be "flashy" and don't much affect how easy they are to use, so there is an important challenge to find ways to make such capabilities useful and effective.

TRN: In terms of technology and anything affected by technology, what will be different about our world in five years? In 10? In 50? What will have surprised us in 10 years, in 50?

Myers: Of course, it is impossible to know, but my guess is that some of the most exciting things will result from moving increasing amounts of computation to personal mobile phones, and the ability of phones to easily communicate with other appliances and PCs using a wireless technology like BlueTooth.

Voice interfaces will finally become useful and commonplace.

Another area that I think is going to take off is intelligent interfaces, where the system actively tries to be helpful and learns from the user.

TRN: Tell me more about this. What is the state of research in this area, and what are some of the possibilities?

Myers: There are already a variety of "intelligent" features that have been widely deployed in commercial software. Whereas many people find Microsoft's "Clippy" agent unhelpful and annoying, most people find the "squiggly" ("wavy") underlines in Word to be useful.

Much of today's spam email filtering is using techniques pioneered in AI labs. Increasingly, the marriage of intelligence with careful user interface design provides benefits to users while making any incorrect guesses from the software more benign.

In CMU's Radar project, we are currently researching how to help with scheduling meetings with multiple busy people, email "triage" to help decide what to do with the hundreds of non-spam emails that busy people get, and automatic authoring and maintenance of project web pages based on contributions from many people.

TRN: What will become more complicated 10 and 50 years down the road, and what will become simpler?

Myers: One of the most highly valued professions in the United States is managers, at least evidenced by the amount that they get paid. One reason is that it is not easy to successfully manage people. I think it is interesting that computer applications are getting more complex, and taking on more tasks that would otherwise be done by people.

In the future, we will basically all be "managers" of a complex set of computer agents. Whereas it may be easier to interact with the computers, because they will understand and generate speech, it may be more difficult to understand and manage the computer's actions and behaviors.

TRN: What do you imagine you or your successor will be working on in 10 years? In 20 years?

Myers: I certainly expect to still be working in 10 years, and hopefully even in 20 years! We will still be trying to make it easier for people to use their computers, and also their other appliances and devices, which increasingly are computers as well.

TRN: What are your thoughts on the state of conventional wisdom on science and technology? What could be done to improve the pursuit of science and technology research in terms of business trends, politics, and/or social trends?

Myers: There is a very disturbing anti-science and anti-intellectual inclination in the United States today. Popular shows, such as "The Simpsons" seem to celebrate stupidity.

The different levels of government have cut funding for education and research, and enacted policies that degrade public education. Funding for basic research is cut by NSF and DARPA, while programs of high potential, such as stem cell research, are severely limited. Companies that used to spend significant funds on research are cutting back dramatically, in order to improve the short-term bottom line.

Meanwhile, the number of problems that need new science and technology research to solve continues to grow. We need a renewed commitment and significantly increased funding from government and industry for science and technology research.

TRN: What's the most important piece of advice you can give to a student who shows interest in science and technology?

Myers: Keep at it! There are so many problems of the world today which can have technological solutions -- from email spam to pollution to disease to energy sources to food production. We need more people with good ideas to go into science and technology to come up with innovative solutions, and literally, save the world.

Another good piece of advice is to also focus on learning how to write high-quality papers. Being a scientist or technologist involves communicating with others about what you are doing. Having good skills at organizing your thoughts into a coherent presentation, and then writing them down or presenting them orally in a well-organized and understandable way, is extremely valuable for everyone in science and technology.

TRN: What books that have some connection to science or technology have impressed you in some way, and why?

Myers: Everyone should read Donald Norman's classic book, "The Design of Everyday Things". New York: Doubleday, 1988. ISBN 0-385-26774-6. This provides a great overview about why products do not need to be hard to use. If consumers would demand that their computer programs and appliances were easier to use, then industry would focus more effort and resources on providing it.

TRN: Is there a particular image (or images) related to science or technology that you find particularly compelling or instructive? Why do you like it; why do you find it compelling or instructive?

Myers: See This is a picture I took of all the remotes in our house. We are trying to solve this problem by moving the remote control functions to a personal handheld such as a mobile phone or PDA.

Another good image is, which is the image that best represents our goal for the Pebbles project.

TRN: What are your interests outside of work, and how do they inform how you understand and think about of science and technology?

Myers: I like to read science fiction. Every person involved in science and technology, especially in research, should keep up with the ideas presented in science fiction, since it illuminates many of the possibilities and risks of the technologies we are inventing. It can also provide inspiration for research directions.

TRN: What question would you like to be asked in an interview like this? What is the answer to that question?

Myers: How did you decide to become a University Professor?

I always knew that I was interested in research, and I liked to write papers and present them, but I didn't expect to end up at a university. After I got my PhD, I fully expected to end up at a company research lab. However, I got a great offer from Carnegie Mellon University, and it has worked out very well. My favorite part is working with all of the really smart students, who continually come up with new ideas and challenge me to keep learning and think in new ways.

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