by Natalie Ferjulian '10
"If people adapt to each other in conversation, why shouldn't computers?"
Evan Peck ’08 is a scientist, designer, writer and psychologist all in one. As a current Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University, he’s finding ways to apply cognitive psychology to computers by creating interfaces that are attentive to human emotions.
“If people adapt to one another in conversations, why shouldn’t computers?” he wonders. Peck’s research and studies are inspired by that question, which he began thinking about during his time at Gordon as a computer science major and a creative writing minor. In his current P.h.D. program, he’s studying in Tufts University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab, where he researches brain-computer interfaces.
“People use computers everywhere, and because of that, technology has changed the way we communicate,” says Peck. “Understanding how we interact with that technology is no longer a question of convenience, but for many of us it transforms into a question about the quality of our lives.”
The goal of Peck’s work is to understand how, when and in what quantity the human brain processes information in a complex environment. One of his recent research prototypes, called the Adaptive Map, allows a car GPS to understand if the driver is overloaded with information. Based on the level of the driver’s frustration, the map will show more or less detail.
“Sometimes you’re in a comfortable driving situation and might be interested to know about the area restaurants that have strong reviews,” says Peck. “Other times you’re driving in the city, it’s raining, you’re lost, and the phone is ringing. You are overwhelmed by the situation, and the only map you care about is the map that gets you to your destination.”
According to Peck, an intelligent map could read these cues and either simplify map detail or expand map context depending on the user’s level of stress.
“This area of study is new, which makes it exciting,” says Peck. “On the downside, we’re still learning how to monitor people as they interact with technology—there’s still a lot of progress to be made.”
For Peck, asking questions and exploring unknown territory are what he enjoys most about his work. “The way Gordon taught me to view things from many different angles and perspectives has contributed to my ability to be successful in this type of research and programming,” says Peck. “During undergrad, I researched volunteer computing games with a colleague at Hope College. I also spent a semester independently studying science journalism, exploring cultural tensions between religion and science.”
Peck is also encouraged by the potential of his work, like the Adaptive Map, to help people cope with an increasingly complex world. “It’s incredible to think that my work could shape how people interact with their computers in the future. No matter who is doing the research, technology will change the way people see and engage with the world around them.”
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