Shaun Kane, a PhD candidate at the Information School, is by any measure immensely creative. So when when he's asked what it was like to hear his name announced as a winner and appear on stage with Kristen Shinohara at the Imagine Cup Awards ceremony, you might expect to hear his mind had wandered to some of his other recent accolades from Google and Microsoft, the home stretch before his PhD, or the next phase for his research.
"It was a larger than life experience. We were in a theater set up like the Oscars, photographers and journalists were on stage," Kane says over coffee one day in Capitol Hill.
The Imagine Cup is an Olympics of technology design, created and sponsored by Microsoft to display the power of technology to solve practical problems. This year's competition was held in Warsaw, Poland, in July. Kane and Shinohara's winning project is OneView, a tool that lets blind and visually impaired people collaborate with other people via the increasingly ubiquitous touch screen interfaces like those found on the iPad and mobile phones. The competition featured more than 325,000 students from more than 100 countries like Brazil, Jamaica, Japan, Poland, Singapore and the US. Kane said from his position on the stage he could look out at the nearly 400 finalists assembled there while the US national anthem was played.
So what was Kane thinking as he and Shinohara accepted their award for second place in the Touch & Tablet Accessibility category?
"We wanted to make sure we held the flag correctly, one of the US teams had held it upside down accidentally," he says.
This contrast between the visionary and the practical is a hallmark of Kane's work.
"I like to describe Human-Computer Interaction as the place where people and technology meet," said Jacob Wobbrock, Kane's adviser at the iSchool and one of his principal collaborators. "That's the fruitful intersection that comes when we bring humans into our equations, so to speak, and really work directly at that intersection - with computing on one hand and social science on the other, and HCI researchers sitting in the middle."
"Shaun's a good programmer, he's a good visual designer, he can run studies well, he has gained some more experience with statistical methods to analyze results now in a way that's convincing, so he can add all that together," said Wobbrock. "It's analogous to the skill with which a potter might make a pot on a clay wheel or an artist might paint, it's kind of at that low level of what can you actually accomplish when it comes down to it. But that assumes you've had a good idea to begin with."
Kane's ideas have been well-received and reviewed in the HCI community. The word Richard Ladner in UW Computer Science and Engineering chooses after some thought is "groundbreaking."
"We all want our students to make major breakthroughs, not just do incremental work," said Ladner, who co-chairs Kane's supervisory committee. He points to Slide Rule, a project Kane worked on with Wobbrock and CSE PhD student Jeff Bigham, as an example. When touch screens started to become ubiquitous, there was a lot of concern in the blind community that they would be inaccessible. Slide Rule set out to test if touch screens could be made accessible. "Their methodology is now a standard in the industry. It's become the basis of VoiceOver, a built-in screenreader for the iPhone and the iPad," said Ladner.
"It seemed like a pretty small thing at the time, because people thought touch screens were inaccessible by their nature, but Slide Rule proved they're not. That's an incredible achievement. Through this project and others Shaun's become the world expert on accessibility for touch screen devices. "
It's that type of desire to tackle big problems that allows Kane to contribute to the larger HCI community in Seattle, even as his success distinguishes him. In addition to taking second place at the Imagine Cup, Kane won a Best Paper award at the 2008 MobileHCI Conference, has had internships with Microsoft Research and Intel Labs and won a $10,000 scholarship from Google and Lime Connect. He also received a $1,000 grant from the Foundation for Science and Disability. Profiles of his work have appeared in The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Xconomy and on KOMO Radio.
"I'm fortunate that both of my advisors are supportive of my work and the directions I want to take it," says Kane. "I'm encouraged to take risks and make the design choices I think are right."
Kane's two primary lines of research now are centered on how blind and visually impaired people can use touch screen devices, from the small (iPhones and other mobile devices) to the big (Microsoft Surface and other surface computing devices).
The first line of work is related to his dissertation, and is the line of his research for which he won the scholarship from Google and Lime Connect, awarded to students with disabilities working in computer science and related fields.
"In that work, I'm investigating how blind users would perform gestures on touch screens," said Kane. "I'm looking at the use of regions and shapes with those interfaces. I am studying 21 users, 10 of whom are sighted, to identify if participants are using the same gestures, or if they're different.
"The big question I am asking is, when we start thinking about design interfaces, not only what commands, but also what about users' physical performance do we need to know to build the interfaces to make them work," he says.
Kane's other line of current research is focused on developing OneView, the project for which he and Shinohara won their award at the Imagine Cup. "This project is also on touch screen interaction, but with a collaboration focus," he says. "We're trying to design tools that help both sighted and blind or visually impaired people collaborate using touch screens," he says. Currently, in settings like classrooms and workplaces, when users with sight interact with tools like the iPad, visually impaired users are excluded from participating. "We're looking at two different interfaces, one sketch-based, like a whiteboard or chalkboard, and one where audio output and touch are used to interact with the devices.
"The big challenge so far has been group awareness - we are developing software that tracks interactions, and the history of interactions with the devices," he says. "It narrates other people's interactions" to make them accessible to visually impaired users, he adds.
The most recent award as the Imagine Cup has meant increased recognition, awareness and encouragement for his work. "I take it as a sign we're on the right track," he says. "Every PhD student geeks out over their own work but there's always a question - do other people think it's important, interesting or valuable.
"It's been good to see recognition coming from different facets of the community," Kane says.
"Shaun is a well-known member of both the iSchool's HCI group as well as DUB [the Design Use Build collaborative at the UW], and he's had internships at Microsoft now twice, and one at Intel Labs as well, so he's really part of the overall HCI ecosystem in the Seattle area," said Wobbrock. "I attribute a lot of his success as a prominent member of that ecosystem to the fact that he swims easily with other types of fish, that is with researchers from social and behavioral scientists to designers to hardcore hackers and builders."
Shinohara, one of Kane's peers in the iSchool PhD program, offered her insight into what it is like to work with him. "He has a great ability to think through problems and also to invent new things, from my perspective," she said.
"He's reached that level where he has a heightened sense of awareness of what makes a good research project or innovation, and those are the things that impress me the most. And his trajectory and success are inspiring to other students."