The University of Kentucky Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments

Au revoir to Dr. Seales

Paris, the most popular tourist destination in the world, and Google, the most popular website on the Internet, came together in 2011 when Google built a Googleplex in the city’s heart. The Googleplex functions as the technology giant’s headquarters for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Dr. Brent Seales, the former director of the Vis Center, will work there over his sabbatical next year. He sings its praises: “Google alone would be awesome. But you put Google in Paris and it’s doubly awesome.”

Dr. Seales will work at Google’s Cultural Institute, a group devoted to “enabling people to digitize and present interesting cultural materials in a way that is relevant for the 21st century,” he explained. Steve Crossan, head of the Cultural Institute, describes the Institute’s mission as gathering the, “history of everything, told by everyone.” The Institute acts like machine trolling through history, collecting artifacts, and storing digital piles in the world’s attic so anyone could climb up and find a trove of cultural heritage.

The Cultural Institute emerged from Google’s various cultural projects, such as the Google Book Library Project and the Google Art Project. For the Library Project, Google digitized over ten million books and made them publicly available online. Dr. Seales mentioned, “It’s a huge project to digitize page-by-page, so they’re interested in the kind of blue sky thinking researchers do, like can you scan large-scale stuff without ever opening the page?” Dr Seales’ research has focused on imaging and visualization, often on cultural heritage such as the digitization of manuscripts, libraries, and art. His EDUCE project (Enhanced Digital Unwrapping for Conservation and Exploration) scans texts and virtually unwraps them to image closed texts, such as the Herculaneum Scrolls. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius carbonized the scrolls, thus making them impossible to open. His experience digitally unrolling the Scrolls interested Steve Crossan.

Google encourages its researchers to explore, so Dr. Seales will choose his own projects. He hopes to learn more about how Google works and how they influence our world. After spending twenty years at the University of Kentucky, he treasures this chance to see the world beyond the University. “One of the risks of doing something a long time is that you start to feel comfortable, and the comfort takes away the creativity and can take away the urge to innovate.” This sabbatical forces him out of his comfort zone. “I would love to be inspired by their creativity and their can-do attitude…they just have this idea that no problem’s too big, no idea’s too far away, and that if you can think it you can make it happen. I love that.”

Dr. Seales looks forward to Parisian culture as well as his work at Google. He is already familiar with French culture because he completed a post-doctoral program in the South of France before coming to UK. Throughout his sabbatical, he will learn French and take advantage of all that Paris offers. “It’s the city of lights. It’s the city of love. It’s the city of culture. So, all of that wrapped together, it’s mind-blowing.” When the year ends, he will bring new ideas to the University of Kentucky; he plans to teach and spread his enthusiasm to his students.

Vis Center Post-Graduate Student Wins Teaching Award

Sami explains his surgery research to a group of UK undergraduates.

The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th out of 133 nations based on the quality of math and science instruction.  Palestine is graded even lower than the United States.  Teachers in war-torn Palestine struggle daily to teach students who are enduring violence.  Sami Taha Abu Snaineh, a Palestinian computer science post-graduate student at the University of Kentucky, hopes to advance his homeland’s computer science instruction. Sami moved from his home in Palestine to work at IBM in Lexington.  In 2008, he began studying computer science at UK. After he finishes his doctoral studies at UK in late 2012 or early 2013, he intends to move back to Palestine permanently and study computer science pedagogy and computer vision.  He will focus on improving higher education in Palestine. Sami said, “I consider teaching not just a career, but a mission.”

Examples of stagnating STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are common: men outnumber women in STEM fields, countries needs skilled science teachers, and science curriculums fail to capture the imagination of students.  One problem lies behind all of these issues – a communication breakdown.  Scientists remain unable to effectively communicate their research and therefore fail to inspire talented young people to launch a STEM career.  The same communication issues plague university professors.

A Ph.D. is a research degree.  However, most Ph.D. candidates become professors with both research and teaching responsibilities.  Often, universities emphasize building research skills and so they under prepare future professors for a teaching career.  Preparing Future Faculty, or PFF, aims to span this disconnect.  PFF churns out better research professors.  PFF pairs participants with a mentor to practice a faculty member’s full responsibilities ranging from research to teaching.  Sami participated in UK’s PFF program.  Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, chose him as the 2012 “Outstanding Teaching Assistant in Computer Science.”

A surgeon practices drills with a laparoscopic surgery model.

Sami credits PFF with his success as a teaching assistant.  “I think that program helped me a lot in improving my teaching skills and improving my vision of how to transfer knowledge and information to the students.”  As a teacher of a night class, Sami felt the struggle of holding the students’ interest. PFF taught him to intersperse his lectures with activities to capture their attention.  He believes computer science departments often fail to prepare Ph.D. students for teaching at a university.

PFF gives doctoral students the opportunity to understand what it means to be a faculty member.  Coming to UK helped Sami realize his passion for helping students unlock the joys of computer science.   Sami learned how to conduct research, solve problems, and share his vision of the world with students. He researches computer vision of minimally invasive surgery, or laparoscopic surgery, to quantify the skills of a surgeon-in-training.  He assesses a surgeon’s skills based on the surgeon’s eye and hand movements. Then he compares the eye and hand movements of a novice to those of an expert.  At UK, he also learned the essential skill for a scientist: communication. Dr. Seales, his mentor at UK, taught Sami that finding a solution fixes only one part of a problem; convincing others to follow your plan counts equally.  Sami learned that comprehension encompasses two levels.  Understanding a concept for your own use constitutes the first step.  The final rung on the ladder of understanding is the ability to teach the concept to someone else.  Sami climbed to the top of this ladder while at UK, so now he will gather his new skills, ideas, and inspiration and take them home to Palestine to motivate a new generation of Palestinian computer scientists.

The Vis Center Unveils Two New Apps

We work all day, but what do we do? In this busy world, we always search for ways to increase productivity and reduce our workload. However, we cannot blindly accept that a new device, display, or training system makes a task easier to complete. Calculating cognitive workload is critical to functioning in a busy, multi-tasking world. For instance, raising the job performance of a surgeon or pilot can save lives. To assess cognitive workload, researchers use three gauges – physiological indicators, subjective workload, and cognitive reserve. Taking physiological measurements, such as skin conductance, often poses logistical roadblocks. Thus, researchers focus on collecting subjective workload, or what people think about a task’s workload, and cognitive reserve, or how much of a user’s effort remains for another task. The Vis Tools apps focus on assessing subjective workload and cognitive reserve. One app provides a convenient way to administer the NASA Task Load Index. The other app collects data about cognitive reserve by measuring a person’s perception of elapsed time while performing a task.

The Vis Tools: Tempo app in action.

Workload checks the effectiveness of training or display systems. Researchers at the Vis Center, Dr. Melody Carswell and Dr. Brent Seales, worked with Dr. Stephen Strup, the Chief of Urology at the University of Kentucky to test their research in the operating room. Laparoscopic surgery, a type of minimally invasive surgery, stresses surgeons because they cannot rely on tactile feedback and they see only a small sliver of the patient’s anatomy during surgery. However, surgeons operate in a high-stakes realm. The Vis Center’s STITCH project developed ways to make laparoscopy less stressful. For example, the team developed a dual display system with one display showing a computer-generated image of the target organ and the relative location of the surgical scope next to the surgeon’s camera scope view on the second screen. Researchers need to evaluate an innovation’s usefulness; does the innovation help a surgeon perform better on the job? To answer these questions, the researchers developed a STITCH toolkit, including the new apps, to give fellow researchers the opportunity to assess innovations for further research.

Vis Tools: TLX

Vis Tools: TLX moves the NASA Task Load Index (TLX) beyond the research lab to the field. Since the 1980s, the NASA TLX has been the most common tool to measure subjective workload. NASA originally designed it for aerospace system design and evaluation. However, the popularity of the TLX took off; googling “the NASA TLX” returns over 80,000 citations in multiple languages. Researchers use the TLX to compute the subjective workload of everything from performing surgery to using a GPS while driving. To quantify subjective workload, the NASA TLX combines six variables: mental demand, physical demand, temporal demand, frustration, effort, and performance. The Vis Tools: TLX app takes a great tool for researching human factors and makes it easy to use with an iPad or iPhone to collect data in the field and then export those data. Dr. Carswell, one of the project’s heads, explained, “You don’t have to be in a lab, and anybody can do it.” The Vis Tools: TLX app landed in the app store even before NASA made its own TLX app. NASA’s website says it will release an iPhone version in the near future.

Vis Tools: Tempo

Cognitive reserve is the difference between the workload of a primary task and a person’s total mental capability. Giving a person a second task to perform simultaneously with another action measures cognitive reserve. The success of performing the secondary task acts as a gauge for the pressures of the primary task. Vis Tools: Tempo measures an individual’s cognitive reserve. Armed with the Tempo app, researchers can give their subjects a pre-designed and easy to use secondary task. The secondary task is measuring time intervals without a clock. For example, a person estimates five second intervals and touches the iPad every five seconds. Vis Tempo prompts a person to give a time interval; the experimenter can change the length of the interval to fit best with the experiment. As primary task workload increases, we flounder more and more with the secondary task. Dr. Carswell wanted a secondary task not too distracting for subjects to perform in conjunction with a primary task. Researchers believed that as the primary task’s workload increased, the task distracts them and they give longer intervals. Imagine driving while talking on your phone. On a straight, empty road, you easily hold a conversation. However, calling somebody while in traffic and switching lanes on a treacherous road changes the story. The Tempo app functions in a similar way. As the primary task’s difficulty increases, the subject produces time intervals that vary more and more.

Vis Tools apps make conducting workload research easier. Quantifying a task’s difficulty allows researchers to demonstrate whether new interfaces ease workload. So, next time your teen is talking while driving, perhaps a user interface designed with Vis Tools will keep him safer. Vis Tools will help us multitask in our dizzying world.

The Vis Center dipped its toes in the App Store before, with the VisCenter app and the Imaging the Iliad app. Download the Vis Tools: TLX app and the Vis Tools: Tempo app for free on iTunes.

Read Dr. Carswell’s article here
This manuscript will be published in Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications, a journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (

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