Cyprus Mail

Technology breaking down social barriers

Humanoid robot could help autistic children

By Zoe Christodoulides
FROM EASING relations between young Greek and Turkish Cypriots to helping autistic children communicate, an exclusive lab here in Cyprus is paving the way by showing how innovative technical research can impact and change human behaviour.
One of a kind for the country, the Cyprus Interaction Lab housed within the University of Technology in Limassol is fully equipped with state of the art devices including eye-tracking, robots, interactive tables, remote controlled cameras, one-way mirrors, specialised usability and accessibility software, as well as brain computer interfaces.
The interaction lab is the only space on the island dedicated to Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and Instructional Technology and has been specially designed for running user evaluations in a comfortable environment with all the latest technology on hand.

Children put the robot through its paces
Children put the robot through its paces

Much of this technology is not available anywhere else in the country but the practical effects on quality of life are potentially profound. Take the lab’s humanoid robot as an example. The robot is of particular interest because it is now being used to examine how it can support communication for autistic children.
“With a focus on using technology for social change, the lab here in Limassol is really unique,” points out Panayiotis Zaphiris, professor in the Department of Multimedia and Graphic Arts, at the university.
“We are focused on the needs of users, particularly those with disabilities, and what we are really striving for, is to make technology friendlier for everyone. This is not only important from an ethical angle, but is also something that is needed to bring Cyprus in line with EU standards when it comes to the basic accessibility of technology for anyone with a disability.”
The Interaction Lab is part of the GALA (Games and Learning Alliance) Network of Excellence. The alliance aims to build a European Virtual Research Centre geared towards gathering, integrating, harmonising and coordinating research on serious games and disseminating knowledge, best practices and tools as a reference point at an international level.
The interaction lab consists of three rooms in total, the first is a ‘focus room’ where brainstorming and interview sessions can take place. The second is an ‘experiment room’ equipped with state of the art tracking equipment and data-capturing software. Last but not least, there is a control room equipped with a one way mirror through which the experimenter can monitor the study sessions as they take place.

feature zoe

Run by 13 academics, researchers and PhD students of the University of Technology, each of them are keen on integrating people and technology, be it in the most basic or complex way. As such, the innovative space also offers a range of services and state of the art equipment to facilitate the needs of a wide range of companies who depend on their customer’s use of technology, with training and consultancy services offered that can then be tied into academic research.
While the lab is well equipped for the support of existing and emerging areas of technology-enhanced learning, those working in the space are keen to promote national and global partnerships. International collaborations are already underway, including a project with Slovenian researchers that examines multi-modal information spaces for problem based learning (learning spaces in which activities using technology can take place.)
But the main focus areas at the lab so far are the web, games and education. The overarching aim is that of understanding and enhancing users’ experience and interaction with devices used in daily life. A number of current research projects underway in the lab are particularly interesting. One endeavour is looking at how an interactive table (comparable to a big tablet) can bring people together to resolve conflict.
“We are really interested to see how people can interact together concurrently with the wider goal of discussing sensitive issues,” explains Zaphiris. “Do these technologies provide a good intermediary for communication? Does it give the chance for people of different backgrounds to share common space, perhaps breaking down barriers?”
Experiments have been conducted to see how the use of this interactive table can facilitate peace dialogue, as members of the lab gathered a number of individuals together to define how conflict can be resolved via a series of activities. “The table has also been used in a similar fashion to see how Greek Cypriots view immigrants, with the goal of helping integrate them into society,” Zaphiris says.
The next step, involves taking this technology into the classroom. “We are now thinking of taking the table to a primary school in Limassol with many Turkish Cypriot and immigrant students, to discuss these issues of integration and see how the software can help change perceptions.”

Humanoid robot could help autistic children
Humanoid robot could help autistic children

Then there’s a project that looks into the user experience of websites that are designed for deaf individuals, while research is also being dedicated to make creative spaces for learning. Rather than trying to stop children from taking all their gadgets into the classroom, the lab is looking into how the things that kids these days find ‘cool’, can be successfully weaved into education.
“It’s about using everyday technologies in more innovative ways, something which goes far beyond projections or power point presentations which aren’t really interesting enough for kids anymore,” explains Antri Ioannou, lecturer of Instructional Technology who co-manages the lab with Zaphiris. “This even involves the creative use of Facebook and mobile devices in the classroom to facilitate a more creative and dynamic situation that actually captures kids’ attention.”
With the lab aiming to soon become part of the European Horizon Network which funds thousands of research and innovation projects in countries across Europe, it is hoped that the research findings to come out of this little space will not only pave the way for change on a local level, but will also have resonance well beyond the shores of Cyprus.

The Cyprus Interaction Lab is situated with the Department of Multimedia and Graphic Arts at the Cyprus University of Technology in Limassol. Tel: 25-002385.

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