Software should not replace people, but strengthen them. That is the mantra of the EDM research unit: Intelligible Interactive Systems. On their desks lie book titles like Software Engineering, Computational Interaction, but also The Design of Everyday Things and Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual. “We research the interaction between software and users. This goes much further than just technology. Psychology, communication, and even ergonomics are also considered." says Prof. Dr. Kris Luyten.

The full interview (in Dutch) can be found here (in Dutch). An English translation can be found below.

The whole magazine (in Dutch):

English Translation

(provided by GPT4)

“Software should not replace people, but strengthen them. That’s the mantra of the EDM research unit: Intelligible Interactive Systems. On their desks lie book titles such as Software Engineering, Computational Interaction, but also The Design of Everyday Things and Soft Skills: The Software Developer’s Life Manual. “We investigate the interaction between software and users. This goes far beyond just technology. Psychology, communication and even ergonomics come into play. Incredibly fascinating,” says Prof. Dr. Kris Luyten.

Group members: Arno Verstraete, Mieke Haesen, Eva Geurts, Jeroen Ceyssens, Valentino Artizzu (intern from the University of Cagliari), Bram van Deurzen, Raf Menten, Jan Van den Bergh, Gustavo Rovelo Ruiz, Davy Vanacken, Kris Luyten.

“Welcome to our playground,” Kris Luyten smiles as he opens one of the cupboards in a research room at the Expertise Centre for Digital Media. And he’s not exaggerating. In the cupboard are Virtual Reality headsets, Augmented Reality glasses, drones, and even a suit with tracking sensors. “They also use this in movies and series to be able to register the movements of actors in front of a green screen. Yes, we have a lot of fun and interesting devices here, but that’s also necessary,” says Kris Luyten. “If you want to study the latest technologies in your research and see how people and companies use or could use these technologies even better, you need to keep up with the latest developments in the market.”

“If you want to study the latest technologies and see how companies use them, you need to keep up with the latest developments in the market,” - Kris Luyten - “Software should help people, technology should be of added value, a reinforcement. Think for example of a VR headset with which you can learn to weld, like Jeroen is developing. And Bram investigated software that analyzes the physical movements of workers during an assembly process and gives them feedback to improve their posture. In the latter case, he worked together with ergonomists and designers of workplaces.

Bram van Deurzen: This collaboration with people with completely different expertise is very nice and makes the work exciting. You get a lot of new input and then you can add your own expertise and try to add value.

Jeroen Ceyssens: That indeed gives your research much more value. You first hear from companies what their problems are, and then you see where your technology can offer a solution. With your research, you can literally improve the work or the work situation of people. I find that impact very important.

Does this motivate everyone at this table, I assume?

Eva Geurts: Yes, it’s often thought that we at EDM only have a technical job. But by investigating how people use software or how software can play a role within a company, you as a researcher look much further than just the technical aspect of the software. The psychological aspect also often plays an important role.

Gustavo Rovelo Ruiz: How can you motivate people to do something or to achieve certain goals? How does certain software best give feedback to the user, is that for example through an auditory or a tactile signal or not? We try to answer these kinds of questions in our research.

Kris: And we do that down to the smallest details. For example, with that VR headset to teach someone how to weld. It’s not just software that can track the welding torch. You also have to provide good visualization and sound. And now we are looking at how to give someone additional instructions during welding. What’s the best way to do that? Through speech? Through text? Or through icons that show what you need to do? All that and more we examine in detail.”

So, you focus primarily on businesses?

Mieke Haesen: We have many collaborations with businesses. EDM is also a core lab of Flanders Make. Our researchers often visit businesses to see which technologies could provide added value or how certain software is being used. This allows the research they conduct here to be quickly implemented in practice.

Eva: And this really gives you a feel for what’s going on within businesses. You can read a lot of literature or always keep up with state-of-the-art infrastructure in the lab to see what’s missing, but you don’t get that practical feel. For example, I work with the custom work company Bewel, who use tablets extensively in their company to provide the custom workers with digital instructions that they can execute step by step. And then it’s interesting to observe what works well and what could be improved.

Bram: And this also keeps you aware that most companies are often still three steps behind the very latest technologies. We also play a role here, showing what is all possible.

Kris: For us, the societal impact is very important. We can honestly say that we’re not publication powerhouses. But that’s just a part of the story for us. We want to conduct research with impact, research that doesn’t sit on the shelf but can benefit society.

Would you like to work for tech giants like Google or Meta, or would you rather stay in the academic world?

Kris: One of my previous doctoral student now works at Meta (smiles).

Gustavo: And another colleague of ours at Google.

Kris: I think that’s an outdated view of the academic world. Applied research and fundamental basic research don’t have to be far apart at all. On the contrary, you should try to keep these two as close as possible. The problems that companies encounter are often not simple, and often there is a need for basic research again to come up with solutions.

Mieke: In the case of valorisation, it is often the case that you first have to make your results known and then see if companies are interested in doing something with them. But partly thanks to our role as a Flanders Make affiliated lab, we can turn this around. We can directly work on the problems companies are facing and apply our results to them, leading to more direct impact. We run projects like the XR-Huis, in which companies come to us at an earlier stage with the challenges they face. This means that our final results can have more impact and that the boundaries between fundamental and applied research become smaller.

Who of you actually has the most new technologies at home?

Bram: I don’t know about at home, but Jeroen certainly has the biggest collection of gadgets here at the office.

Jeroen: Yes, the area I’m mainly working on, Virtual and Augmented Reality, is the most revolutionary at the moment. New devices and techniques are constantly emerging. I have a full VR setup at home, so I think I can say that I have the most new technologies at home. But I don’t have so many gadgets at home. I do have home control with smart control, but that was from the previous owner.

Eva: Yes, but you have completely adjusted and reprogrammed it (laughs). I think everyone here is interested in gadgets, but for private use they are often too expensive.

Gustavo: For research, the very latest smartphone is not so interesting, but for example the newest types of trackers or cameras that are integrated are. They open new doors for interaction between the software and the users. That makes it interesting to carry out further research on it.

Finally, what do you consider your greatest successes?

Kris: Difficult question. There are many, but that might sound cliché (smiles). I am most proud of my PhD students and to see where they all end up. That brings me a lot of pleasure. A doctorate is not just about publishing, you can also really add value if you then move on to the industry. This is not research in the ivory tower.

Gustavo: Here within EDM and also through education within the computer science program, we help train the next generation of computer specialists and we ensure that they have a broad view of their field. That is important. And of course, it is nice to see that technology you make here actually works. For the Dutch healthcare group Adelante, I helped to develop games for a robotic arm to assist people after a stroke with their rehabilitation. Because the exercises were presented as computer games, the patients found it much more fun and less heavy. One of the patients was a woman who hadn’t been able to hug her husband for months, but after two weeks of rehab with the device, she was able to hug her husband again. That was incredibly motivating for me to be able to contribute to that.