Imagine if people could use gestures to run computers and household appliances? Now, global information technology giant Hewlett-Packard has named two Indian-Americans researching this technology as recipients of its innovation research award.
Dr Venu Govindaraju, professor of computer science and engineering at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Dr Narendra Ahuja, Donald Biggar Willet professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were among the 41 professors worldwide selected to receive the HP Labs Innovation Research Awards.
The awards fund strategic joint research projects between academic research institutions worldwide and HP Labs.
The duo competed against researchers from 200 universities in 28 countries who submitted a total of 450 project proposals. The winners include Dr Soumen Chakrabarti of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay and Dr Anurag Mittal of IIT-Madras.
The winners represent top-tier institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Israel's Technion and the Tsinghua University in China.
"This level of competition has never happened at HP Labs before," says Prith Banerjee, director, HP Labs and senior vice president for research, HP. "It's like the Olympics of research, where the best professors from the best universities around the world were selected to work with researchers at HP Labs."
Together with HP Labs researchers, the professors and graduate students will tackle some of the most challenging scientific and technical problems today.
"My project envisions a novel human-computer-interaction technology that promises to advance the area of pervasive computing," Dr Govindaraju told India Abroad. "I graduated from IIT [Kharagpur] and therefore take great satisfaction in being able to contribute in a meaningful way by collaborating on this project with IIT-Madras. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to work with colleagues in India," he said, adding that his project gets him the best graduate students because it allows them to work with top companies on industry-relevant problems.
Dr Govindaraju's project involves a 'smart' room that allows computers to recognize speech and gestures. This research is a part of what is called ubiquitous or pervasive computing. The technology Dr Govindaraju and Dr Mittal propose to develop would allow you, for example, to switch on a chosen fixture in a roomful of lights. A smart room would be able to tell, through voice commands and the direction one is pointing, which light to turn on, Dr Govindaraju said.
This research goes beyond the programme on Apple's iPhone, which allows users to manipulate objects on their phone by closing, opening or moving their fingers while touching the screen. It also builds on the technology behind the Nintendo Wii, which recognizes the movements of the user's hand holding a remote control unit that and replicates it within a game. Under the ubiquitous computing concept, the computer would adapt to the person using it and essentially remain in the background, Dr Govindaraju said.
Dr Ahuja's project aims to build a three-dimensional map of indoor environments. In making this map, he and his team aim to focus on meeting such challenges posed by the common presence indoors of reflective surfaces like windows, poorly lit areas such as shadows, and texture-less surfaces like flat walls, etc. By combining various bits of information they plan to generate a high-resolution three-dimensional map, including the dynamics of moving objects. The map will help visually cue commands to appliances and devices in the room, and it can be applied to video conferencing, among other things.
Dr Govindaraju, whose work in handwriting recognition was at the core of the first handwritten address interpretation system the United States Postal Service used, did his PhD from SUNY-Buffalo and has conducted research for more than 20 years.
He has made significant contributions to many areas of pattern recognition, a major branch in the field of artificial intelligence. Much of his early work focused on the automated recognition of written language, both machine-printed and hand-written text. More recently, his research has expanded to information retrieval and biometrics data.
The founder of the Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors, he was also the prime technical lead responsible for technology transfer to Lockheed Martin and Siemens Corporation for deployment by the US Postal Service, Australia Post and UK Royal Mail, he said. He has been the principal or co-principal investigator of government- and industry- funded projects worth about $50 million. A fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the International Association of Pattern Recognition, he has won several awards, including the prestigious MIT Global Technovator Award.
Dr Ahuja did his BE with honors in electronic engineering at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, India, his ME degree with distinction in electrical communication engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, and his PhD in computer science from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has served as scientific officer in the Indian government's Department of Electronics in New Delhi. He has also worked with the Computer Vision Laboratory, University of Maryland. Since 1979 he has been with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also professor at the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and the Beckman Institute. His research areas include computer vision, robotics, image processing and image synthesis. His current research emphasizes integrated use of multiple image sources of scene information to construct three-dimensional descriptions of scenes and the use of integrated image analysis for realistic image synthesis, among other things.
He has won many awards, including the IEEE's Emanuel R Piore award, the University of Maryland's Department of Computer Science Distinguished Alumnus Award, the IEEE's Best Paper Award and Presidential Young Investigator Award. He was the founding director of International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, where he continues to serve.