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Contributing to the research around human-machine interfaces

ENTERFACE 2016, University of Twente, the Netherlands

Delegates in attentence at the Enterface Conference 2016

This summer I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to participate in a month-long workshop entitled ENTERFACE 2016. The workshop was hosted in the Design Lab of the University of Twente, a university renowned for encouraging students to innovate and set up their own start-up companies, in the east of the Netherlands. This workshop is held every year, and is a great opportunity for researchers to come from across the globe to collaborate on a series of highly interesting projects that centre on human-computer interaction and the development of intelligent computer systems. 

I was a member of the Virtual Human Journalist team. The aim of our four-week project was to advance the existing capabilities of an artificial information retrieval agent using a framework currently in development in the ARIA VALUSPA project. Currently there exists a highly developed agent which can retrieve and relay information to a user. Our task was to pilot the capability of the virtual agent to conversely elicit information from a user. Our team consisted of members from programming, dialogue-management and computer-human interaction backgrounds. 

With my background in Experimental Psychology I was tasked with generating appropriate speech content for the agent as well as the development of different questioning strategies that the agent could use to effectively elicit information from the user. I then learned how to write speech templates using functional mark-up language (FML) to produce a large number of FML files containing chunks of the agent’s speech along with the appropriately timed accompanying emotional cues, prosodic features and performative gestures. I also developed an easily navigable classification system for storing and retrieving the speech templates. In the second phase of the project I was involved in operating a Wizard of Oz set-up to test the effectiveness of the agent’s questioning strategies as well as its ability to sustain a natural and smooth-flowing conversation with the user. In order to gain an insight into the user’s impressions of the agent, I developed and administered a 16-question evaluation survey to assess the agent’s conversational and empathic abilities. After conducting the user studies I was able to analyse the user feedback as well as the transcribed conversational logs recording the interaction between the agent and user. This allowed me to identify where the agent’s questioning and empathic skills required enhancement, and helped me to write further useful conversational-filling templates to add to the agent’s speech bank. I then co-presented our findings with my project leader to the rest of the Enterface participants during the final presentations of our projects.  

I had a really great time during my month at ENTERFACE. It was great to be part of such a varied interdisciplinary team, as well as to meet interesting researchers from all over the world. I was able to absorb more information about the different programming languages out there as well as their applications, and I was able to gain a more educated insight into potentially very important areas that I will benefit from gaining further training in. Whilst I am a research student from a Psychology background, and my primary interest lies in human-human interactions, I was able to see the clear links between developments in the affective computing sphere and the exciting future prospects for Psychological research, particularly regarding the measurement of emotion.

I was able to learn more about the hugely exciting and increasingly important role that will be played in the future by machine learning and deep vision, especially with regards to social signalling processing and facial expression analysis. Additionally, I got to learn a great deal from the other projects in the lab, regarding practical applications for robots, how robots can recognise socially communicative events as well as the importance of smell and physical appearance in our interactions with robots. It was great to be able to engage in fascinating debates regarding the future directions and ethical implications of human-computer interactions and relationships, as well as the potential capacity for robots and virtual agents to experience empathy and feelings, which would lead to more complex ethical questions about the social and legal rights that these agents may be given in the future. I was able to attend a number of highly interesting talks on social signalling, humour in robots and eye tracking in social interactions. Additionally, I was able to engage in networking in a relaxed and collaborative setting, and I was able to see how interdisciplinary research fits together. 

However, it was not all just work, as there were a number of social events organised including barbecues and museum trips, gaming nights, bike rides and trips to nearby Dutch cities. I also had the opportunity to explore the city of Enschede, cycle around areas of natural beauty, as well as visit Amsterdam and Utrecht. I would like to say a very warm and appreciative thank you to the School of Psychology for providing the financial support for me to have had this experience which I have found to be incredibly valuable at both the academic and personal level.

Further information on Postgraduate Research within the School is available here.