Dina El-Zanfaly, an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, was recently named a Research Scholar by Google. The Research Scholar Program aims to support early-career professors who are pursuing research in fields relevant to Google and provides unrestricted gifts to support research at institutions around the world, and is focused on funding world-class research conducted by early-career professors. El-Zanfaly is one of six CMU professors to win the award this year and is the first representative to come from the College of Fine Arts.
El-Zanfaly’s research project for the Google Research Scholar program is called “In-the-making: An intelligence-mediated collaboration system for creative practices.” In this project, she investigates and introduces design methods and approaches to apply both machine intelligence and learning as design and collaboration mediums. These suggested methods and approaches focus mainly on designing embodied interactions that go beyond two-dimensional surfaces and digital screens.
“I believe that these interactions unite the body and mind, an essential factor in creativity,” said El-Zanfaly. “My students and I will create a physical system that allows remote users to collaborate with each other on a malleable medium such as a sand table. This system is supported with machine-learning that detects how each user manipulates the sand and then copies it to the other users’ sand tables.”
El-Zanfaly notes that her unique research experience in design and computation enables her to offer a critical perspective on this project, which addresses the challenges in designing interactions between humans and AI.
“In this research investigation, the intelligent system itself is a collaborator with human designers,” said El-Zanfaly. “It can manipulate and make suggestions of what it is being created. Although there have been some attempts to use tangible user interfaces between remote users, there is still a lack of technologies supporting remote collaboration for creative and design practices beyond video conferencing. Research on enhancing collaboration through computation among users or users and intelligent systems has been growing over the past half-century.
El-Zanfaly founded and directs hyperSENSE, an “Embodied Computations Lab” within Carnegie Mellon University. In hyperSENSE, researchers focus on new roles of computational design and physicality in embodied sense-making, including human perception, cognition, and experience. hyperSENSE studies the agency of computational creative modes of production and the emerging social, cultural, and technological behaviors resulting from introducing them.
“We mainly investigate computational methods to augment our sensory experiences,” said El-Zanfaly. “We investigate designing interactions with intelligent systems from a critical human-centered lens. These interactions include hybrid environments, artifacts, computational methods, and co-creation and designing tools. We investigate the questions of: how can intelligent machines and systems learn from us and how can we learn from them? How can we work together to create and improvise?”
“I am thrilled and humbled to be awarded the Research Google Scholar Award,” added El-Zanfaly. “I hope this is just the start for considering design as a main category in such awards. Design is also computation. Design has proven to be an important and valuable holistic approach for developing both technologies and businesses and their values.
“Whether we are creating products, experiences or services, design enables us to integrate both their context and inherent values.”