Northeastern University College of Computer and Information Science Tue, 03 Mar 2015 13:29:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Go Time for Game Jammers Wed, 04 Feb 2015 14:08:32 +0000 Cre­ating a game often takes months or even years. But for one weekend each year, thou­sands of people from dozens of coun­tries con­dense the process into 48-​​hours.

Global Game Jam gives teams of game devel­op­ment enthu­si­asts the chance to make short, but mem­o­rable video games, board games, and card games based on a common theme. Last month, three North­eastern entities—the Playable Inno­v­a­tive Tech­nolo­gies Lab, the Center for the Arts, and the Dig­ital Media Com­mons—hosted the 2015 Boston Global Game Jam, whose theme was “What Do We Do Now?”

Event orga­nizer Casper Harteveld, an assis­tant pro­fessor of game design in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, noted that 169 people par­tic­i­pated in the Boston Jam, cre­ating 33 games. World­wide, 28,872 people in 78 coun­tries cre­ated 5,426 games.

Here, North­eastern stu­dent and fac­ulty “jam­mers” dis­cuss their Global Game Jam experiences.

Every­thing is Fine

First-​​time jammer Amanda Win­field, AMD’17, ini­tially learned about Global Game Jam at Northeastern’s Game Demo Day, where stu­dents show­cased games they had made at last year’s event.

“I’m an aspiring game artist and ani­mator, so spending 48 hours making a game sounded great,” Win­field explained. “But spending 48 hours straight making a game with little sleep sounded daunting.”

Her team cre­ated Every­thing is Fine, a video game in which the player con­trols an astro­naut who has landed on the moon just as Earth is being destroyed. The astro­naut goes about his days thinking he’s the last person on Earth, and the goal of the game is to sur­vive the sup­posed predica­ment, both phys­i­cally and mentally.

“I think the most sur­prising moment of the game jam was when I real­ized I was still in the library at 4 a.m. and so was most of my group,” she said. “The most exciting moment was seeing our game come together.”

What do Wii Do Now?

Asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design Celia Pearce has served as a judge at past Global Game Jams but decided to work as a jammer this time around.

“I’ve never done it before and I wanted to have the expe­ri­ence from the par­tic­i­pants’ view­point,” explained Pearce, a world leading expert on vir­tual worlds and mul­ti­player gaming. “I also got involved with a project I really like and am hoping our team will con­tinue devel­oping it.”

Her team’s project is called What do Wii Do Now?, which Pearce said was pro­posed by Mark True­blood, AMD’16. In each level of the game, the player has to per­form a spe­cific task with the Wii remote. In one level, the user has to shake—and then open—a soda can. In another, he has to nav­i­gate a maze in order to find his fellow players.

“Game jams are always exciting, and it’s fun to see what people come up with,” Pearce said. “I also just love the process of designing games.”

We Need To Talk

Jen­nifer Tella, AMD’15, and Dan Jackson, exec­u­tive director of the NULawLab, teamed up to create a video game called We Need To Talk. In their game, the user con­trols a mar­riage coun­selor who is working with a super­hero duo that wants advice on how to end their romantic rela­tion­ship while main­taining their super­hero partnership.

“I’m not a gamer,” said Jackson, who was par­tic­i­pating in his first Global Game Jam. “But the way the jam was organized—from start to finish—allows anyone to become a con­tributing part of a team.”

Tella, who was par­tic­i­pating in her third Global Game Jam, noted that the expe­ri­ence gives gamers like her the oppor­tu­nity to try new things. “It’s like a fun sized candy bar com­pared to the daunting king size that a full game project can turn into,” she said. “You get all the best parts without having to worry as much about the long-​​term side effects.”

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Northeastern Joins New Research Center on Healthy Aging Mon, 26 Jan 2015 13:39:59 +0000 healthyaging1400-740x493Northeastern’s membership in this new Roybal Center dovetails with the university’s focus on health—one of its primary research themes—and builds upon its leadership in research on healthy aging. Photo via Istock.

North­eastern is a founding member of a new multi-​​university research center focused on healthy aging. In par­tic­ular, the center will develop and test inno­v­a­tive strate­gies to pro­mote, increase, and sus­tain phys­ical activity among middle-​​aged and older adults.

Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, will lead the North­eastern team involved in the Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Inter­ven­tions. The center launched this fall with sup­port from a five-​​year, $1.5 mil­lion grant from the National Insti­tute on Aging.

Based at Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity, the center will har­ness the exper­tise of its institutions—which also include Boston Uni­ver­sity, Boston Col­lege, and the Har­vard Med­ical School-​​affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife—and their inter­dis­ci­pli­nary researchers to develop and test moti­va­tional, social, and behav­ioral strate­gies to sup­port increased phys­ical activity, espe­cially for adults at high risk of poor health outcomes.

According to the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, one in three adults world­wide is not active enough, and phys­ical activity is the fourth-​​leading risk factor for death. Phys­ical inac­tivity is cited as a key risk factor for health prob­lems ranging from car­dio­vas­cular dis­ease to diabetes.

“There are numerous health risks asso­ci­ated with a seden­tary lifestyle, par­tic­u­larly for older adults,” Fulmer said. “As a center, our goal is to work col­lab­o­ra­tively to create and advance research that pro­motes behav­ioral change and helps this pop­u­la­tion live healthier, more active lives.”

The center is testing and piloting strate­gies using a variety of per­son­al­ized and mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary approaches. North­eastern researchers are leading three of the center’s first five pilot projects:

• Carmen Sceppa, pro­fessor of health sci­ences, will examine whether a peer-​​led, community-​​based group group exer­cise pro­gram improves how frail, seden­tary older adults deal with their pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive emo­tions, and if so how these improved emotion-​​regulation strate­gies enhance their daily phys­ical activity and well-​​being.
• Holly Jimison, pro­fessor of the prac­tice in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, is devel­oping and pilot testing a novel and scal­able approach to aug­menting depres­sion pre­ven­tion and man­age­ment, with a focus on low-​​income older adults living inde­pen­dently at home. The project builds upon her work using an existing soft­ware plat­form for semi-​​automated remote health coaching.
• Eliz­a­beth Howard, asso­ciate pro­fessor of nursing, is imple­menting Vitalize 360, a com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment system and per­son­al­ized well­ness coaching pro­gram for vul­ner­able, low-​​income com­mu­nity dwelling older adults.

The center will work to create and advance research in this field, in addi­tion to training other aca­d­emic researchers and com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions to help older adults increase their activity level and lead a healthier lifestyle, Fulmer said.

There are cur­rently 13 Roybal Cen­ters nation­wide. The cen­ters were autho­rized by Con­gress in 1993 and are named for the chair of the former House Select Com­mittee on Aging, Edward R. Roybal. They are intended to develop and pilot inno­v­a­tive ideas for trans­la­tion of basic behav­ioral and social research find­ings into pro­grams and prac­tices that will improve the lives of older people and the capacity of insti­tu­tions to adapt to soci­etal aging.

Northeastern’s mem­ber­ship in this new Roybal Center dove­tails with the university’s focus on health, one of its pri­mary research themes.

Fulmer said North­eastern is excep­tion­ally well posi­tioned to con­duct use-​​inspired research across dis­ci­plines to address health and healthy aging. Building on its lead­er­ship in this area, North­eastern this fall estab­lished a center designed to advance nursing sci­en­tists’ research and effec­tive tech­nology inter­ven­tions for improving self-​​care and self-​​management for America’s older adults. The North­eastern Center for Tech­nology in Sup­port of Self Man­age­ment and Health, also known as NUCare, is sup­ported by the National Insti­tutes of Health’s National Insti­tute of Nursing Research.

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Looking ahead: Fitness Tech in 2015 Thu, 22 Jan 2015 14:11:00 +0000 intille_150

Fit­ness trackers accounted for more than half of the 35 mil­lion wear­able devices in use at the end of 2014, according to a report by global ana­lyst CCS Insight. Here, Stephen Intille, the co-​​founder of Northeastern’s per­sonal health infor­matics doc­toral pro­gram and an asso­ciate pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, explains what we can expect from fit­ness tech in 2015.

Wearable fitness trackers, like the Jawbone UP3, FitBit Surge, and the forthcoming Apple Watch, promise to track your health 24/7 and help you reach your fitness goals. In your view, what devices will make the biggest splash in 2015?

In 2015 we are likely to see the introduction of even more watch-like devices that are capable of gathering fitness data but also serving other personal and productivity needs. Industry will compete to add an increasing number of sensors to the devices, measuring information such as body motion, location, heart rate, galvanic skin response (i.e., sweating), and skin temperature. The newest devices already have sophisticated input/output options, such as touch screens, radio frequency identification tags, and speech input, as well as audio and tactile output. The somewhat bulky devices introduced in 2013-14 will slim down and become more stylish, and developers will figure out user interface conventions that make the devices easier to use.

The biggest surprise in 2015 may not be how consumers use these devices for health, but rather an increasing awareness that the devices improve the utility of the mobile phone. A smartwatch that can automatically detect whether its user is walking, for instance, can make interaction with that person’s mobile phone more pleasant and efficient, such as by automatically changing availability states and the way in which people are notified of messages. The good news is that people will get in the habit of using these devices for everyday tasks, and that will create more opportunities to use the devices to also support health.

A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 56 percent of respondents believe that average life expectancy will grow by 10 years due to wearable-enabled monitoring of our vital signs. With this in mind, what role do you think fitness trackers will play in the future of the healthcare industry?

Fitness trackers will definitely play a role in the future of our healthcare, as our “sick” care system transitions toward proactive, wellness-based care. Convenient, continuous, and autonomous data gathering on health-related behaviors will be necessary if we are to cost-effectively help hundreds of millions of Americans stay healthy and fit, while at the same time reducing their need for costly clinical and specialist care.

Nevertheless, the PricewaterhouseCoopers study is a somewhat troubling example of how industry and consumer enthusiasm for the commercial devices may exceed the scientific evidence demonstrating their effectiveness. Few well-designed studies have shown that use of wearable fitness technologies leads to long-term, sustainable health and sustained healthy behavior in the general population. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that many consumer fitness devices may be abandoned not long after purchase, relegated to the same drawers as pedometers, home exercise videos, food portion measurement cups, and weights. There is a risk that the public and business community will become prematurely disgruntled with the promise of wearable fitness technology before the truly novel uses and benefits of the technology are discovered and definitively proven. As researchers, we have our work cut out for us.

Your research focuses on how data acquired every day from miniature mobile and in-home sensors might be used to improve wellness via novel human-computer interfaces. What projects are on your 2015 to-do list?

We are working in two areas: improving health behavior measurement using mobile phones and wearable devices, and then using that information to create new just-in-time interventions that help people make and sustain desired behavior changes. In particular, we are exploring how mobile phones and smartwatches can be used to incrementally build up mathematical models of a person’s typical behavior so that we can identify habits. The phone or watch does what it can automatically, inferring some information about physical activity and sleep patterns, but it also asks for information from the person when it needs it. The trick is to figure out ways of doing this so that the user doesn’t feel burdened, even though the automatic sensing will never be perfect.

At the same time, we are developing ideas for how real-time knowledge of what the person is doing can be used to influence behavior by providing computer- and human-generated feedback timed precisely at actionable points of decision. Our goal is to create novel interventions that help people change habits and then maintain those habits for very long periods of time. We want to take advantage of the ability of the computer to patiently and ever-presently measure and model behavior and decision making, and then to use that information to intervene in a compelling way, just when a person is most receptive to help.

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3Qs: Tracking the Flu Tue, 20 Jan 2015 14:48:29 +0000 Alex VespignaniThe Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion recently declared a flu epi­demic in the U.S., with the virus appearing in 46 states so far. Many people have stayed home sick, while offi­cials have announced that this year’s vac­cine is not as effec­tive as in years past. Alessandro Vespignani—a world-​​renowned sta­tis­tical physi­cist and the Stern­berg Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence, the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences at Northeastern—and his team in the university’s Lab­o­ra­tory for the Mod­eling of Bio­log­ical and Socio-​​Technical Sys­tems are uti­lizing large amounts of data to model the spread of the virus and pre­dict when the out­break will begin to taper off. Here, Vespig­nani dis­cusses the sci­ence behind his pre­dic­tions and what they say about the future of this year’s flu season in Mass­a­chu­setts and beyond.

The CDC has declared a national flu epidemic. What’s your assessment of how widespread the flu has become in the U.S. this season, and the likelihood that it will continue to grow at the current rate or faster? And what might be the impact in Massachusetts, specifically?

The CDC data reports widespread activity in most of the U.S. Also, the intensity of the epidemic is remarkable, retracing the nasty season of 2012-13. However, the most recent data and forecast models are telling us that we are going through the peak right now, and that the activity will likely start decreasing in most of the U.S. This does not mean that we are “out of the woods” yet. Being at the peak of the season means we are just halfway through it. We therefore have to consider several more weeks of sustained flu activity. The usual recommendations about getting the flu shot and not going to work if you feel ill still apply in full.

Concerning Massachusetts, the flu season is seemingly following the national trend with a little delay. However, our region had a very “bumpy” 2013-14, with multiple peaks and irregular activity. Hopefully this year does not have too many surprises in store for us.

You and your colleagues around the globe recently created a tool that allows people to visually explore the flu data in several countries and from a variety of sources, including the CDC. How does this tool work and how can people use it?

We have set up a computational platform,, that allows people to follow the flu season by looking at the real-time data released by the various national flu surveillance systems and by exploring several different forecasting algorithms that project the evolution of the epidemic up to four weeks in advance. The algorithms we use for the forecast span a wide range of techniques, including dynamic generative models that take into account the geographical regions within each specific country and infer the specific epidemic parameters of the season, such as the virus transmissibility. We are considering more than half a dozen countries, including the U.S. and Canada, but we aim at expanding the platform by progressively adding new countries, models, and data. We are also opening the platform to other modeling groups and hope to aggregate more forecasting systems in it in the near future. The aim is to provide a real-time tool with which users can explore data, collect situational awareness, investigate trends, and look at forecasts generally available only to a small number of practitioners in the field. Because we’re operating in real time, we update the platform weekly and issue new forecasts concurrently with any new dataset originated from the surveillance systems. Reliable flu forecasts are still a scientific problem, and we hope that this platform will help in testing, comparing, and evaluating different techniques in different countries.

In addition to the flu, your lab has produced groundbreaking research on predicting the spread of the Ebola virus and other diseases. How do you go about creating these forecasts, and does predicting the flu present any significant challenges in particular?

We go after epidemics by developing large-scale computational epidemic models that integrate socio-demographic and mobility data of the population under study. These models are detailed down to the individual level and provide the dynamic of the epidemic by simulating the infection transmission event in the computer for millions of individuals in their social and geographical settings. In a nutshell, what we do is akin to what is done with computerized weather forecasts. The difference is that the data, model, and algorithms we use are describing the individuals and the biological processes underlying the spread of the disease instead of the physical processes of the meteorological systems.

The flu, although it is a seasonal disease that we know very well, is very elusive from a modeling perspective. It does not have a definite geographical initial condition. The dominant flu strain changes every year, and typically there are several co-circulating strains. These are some of the reasons why we do not have reliable forecasting systems in place—yet. Tools like our are the first attempt, and not the final solution, to solving the problem of real-time epidemic forecasting. Indeed, is an effort that we will continue to support so that the analysis of models, their eventual improvements, and their reliability can be evaluated over the span of several years and in a wide range of geographical and social contexts. There is a lot of work still out there waiting to be done.

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Looking ahead: Cybersecurity in 2015 Thu, 15 Jan 2015 14:18:16 +0000 wil robertsonA score of highly pub­li­cized data breaches in 2014 has moti­vated Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to announce that strength­ening cyber­se­cu­rity will be one of his administration’s top pri­or­i­ties in 2015, with a par­tic­ular focus on iden­tity theft and improving con­sumer privacy.

We asked William Robertson, a web secu­rity expert and an assis­tant pro­fessor with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Engi­neering, to explain what we can expect from cyber­se­cu­rity in the new year.

What new advancements or announcements in cybersecurity can we expect in 2015?

Some of the biggest cybersecurity news in 2014 centered on the continuing rise of state-sponsored malware; more large-scale breaches at retailers, financial institutions, cloud providers, and government agencies; leaks that provided more insight into the scale and sophistication of government surveillance; and the discovery of serious vulnerabilities in foundational security protocols. There aren’t easy solutions for any of these issues, either because of limitations in our technical abilities to automatically find and eradicate vulnerabilities at scale or constraints that prevent the application of known technical mitigations.

However, broadly speaking, I expect we’ll see researchers working in earnest on defenses—and more proof-of-concept attacks—in all of these areas. And, there are already practical improvements rolling out that can help users to defend against some of these attacks—for instance, the increasing availability of two-factor authentication as well as the increasing sophistication of these systems.

Are you working on any new research this year that reflects new trends in cybersecurity? If so, what will that research focus on?

Our group will investigate space and time complexity vulnerabilities. Many of the attacks we see today use memory corruption flaws or other straightforward techniques to directly hijack control of programs in order to carry out attacks. But an interesting class of vulnerabilities that we believe will become more prevalent in the future concerns the question of whether an adversary can directly attack the algorithms implemented by a program, a significantly different problem that could lead to asymmetric denial-of-service or disclosure of sensitive information.

It’s postulated that as more of the security research that defends against lower-level issues such as memory corruption percolates into deployed systems, attackers will refocus their efforts on higher-level vulnerabilities such as space and time complexity attacks. Our research aims to help the defenders stay one step ahead of the attackers in this area.

What is one area of cybersecurity that most people are not focusing on that you believe may come to the forefront of the field in 2015?

One area that I believe will become extremely important in 2015 and beyond is the security of the Internet of Things. The IoT is a buzzword that refers to the push to provide connectivity for everyday devices: home security cameras, baby monitors, thermostats, home appliances, lighting systems, and door locks.

Major players are already forging ahead in this area; Google with its Nest thermostat and Apple with its HomeKit integration framework come to mind. Of course, this connectivity carries a risk, as the network now becomes a potential attack vector. And we have already seen attacks that allow miscreants to remotely hijack security cameras to spy on people, and there was a well-publicized incident where a baby monitor was hacked and a couple was berated by obscenities.

On the flip side, there are privacy concerns that arise when considering that these devices are sometimes managed by, or at least provide data to, third parties. Therefore, we will see strong interest on the part of researchers in improving the security of these devices as well as defending against privacy leaks in the year to come.

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CCIS Receives $1 Million Wenzinger Gift Tue, 23 Dec 2014 02:24:51 +0000 wenzingerWhen an ambitious student with a great idea hits a stumbling block, what’s the worst that could happen? If guidance and resources are scarce, that student might miss out on a life-changing opportunity. Investment portfolio manager Brian Wenzinger, CS’89, is ensuring that scenario doesn’t happen at Northeastern.

Mindful that mentorship and funding are frequently the keys to success, Wenzinger invested $1 million to establish the Larry Finkelstein Innovative Computing Education Endowment (ICEE) at the College of Computer and Information Science. Named for Wenzinger’s collaborator on the project—who is his one-time professor and the college’s former dean—the fund advances academic and research partnerships between students and faculty.

“Computer science is a vast and continually changing field,” Wenzinger observes. “I want to support students who have that creative spark, and push them to challenge themselves.”

Spurred by this generosity, faculty and students in the college teamed up to publish Realm of Racket, a computer programming guidebook written by freshmen for freshmen. The group wrote and illustrated the manual in graphic novel format, united by their knack for data analysis and problem solving—talents Wenzinger uses each day as a principal at AJO, a Philadelphia-based investment adviser firm.

At Northeastern, Wenzinger was a Carl S. Ell Presidential Scholar. “The university gave me the basis for learning and work, and enabled me to go somewhere in life with the skills that I had.” His gift to launch ICEE is the largest ever made to the college and marks his most recent investment in a long history of giving.

– By Northeastern University

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Man vs. Trolley Tue, 23 Dec 2014 02:20:15 +0000 man_vs_trolleyAnyone who has taken Boston’s Green Line trolley knows that it is sloooow. Michael Ravert, CIS’16, decided to prove what many of us have thought: “I could get there faster if I just ran.”

On a warm day last summer, he did it—but it was close. At the end of the four-mile race, Ravert crossed the finish line near Kenmore Square with a time of 24:08; the trolley rolled in 41 seconds later.

It all began when the computer science major started his co-op at RunKeeper, a Boston company that created a GPS fitness-tracking app for mobile devices. The company was organizing a promotional event dubbed “Outrun the Green Line,” and Ravert decided to sign up.

“The race was much tougher than expected,” says Ravert. “We had a RunKeeper employee ride the B line two days before the race. It took him 26 minutes, so we never thought it would go as fast as it did.  The trolley caught a couple of green lights,
and we had to catch up.”

On co-op, Ravert has worked on program development for Androids and iPhones, which he finds particularly valuable because it allowed him to get his first experience on the iPhone platform.

–By Northeastern Magazine

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Donate Your Voice to Charity Fri, 19 Dec 2014 20:40:58 +0000 Earlier this year, Stephen Hawking, who has relied on the same computerized system to communicate for more than 20 years, received a much-needed upgrade. The system, which allowed Hawking to translate text into speech via a sensor on his cheek, had become prohibitively slow as the physicist’s progressing ALS left him with weakened control of his facial muscles.

When Intel began work on his newer, faster computer, Hawking had one requirement: The software could change, but the sound of his speech had to remain the same.

“The voice has become so iconic that he considers that his own personal voice,” Horst Haussecker, the director of Intel’s Computational Imaging Lab and a leader of the project, recently told NPR. “It’s based on, you know, slightly outdated technology, but it makes it very unique and you couldn’t copy it even if you wanted to.”

“It is the best I have heard,” Hawking wrote of his iconic voice on his personal website, “although it gives me an accent that has been described variously as Scandinavian, American, or Scottish.”

But even a case of mistaken nationality isn’t enough to damage the link between the sound of the machine and the man it speaks for; over time, one has become emblematic of the other. Stephen Hawking does not sound like a computer—Stephen Hawking sounds like Stephen Hawking.

Most people who cannot speak, though, do not have the luxury of being Stephen Hawking.

* * *

An estimated eight out of every 1,000 Americans, or 2.5 million people, are severely speech-impaired due to a variety of conditions: head injuries, congenital disorders like cerebral palsy, or degenerative diseases like Hawking’s ALS. Many of them rely on text-to-speech machines, typing words that are then vocalized electronically. They sound like computers. And because computers are manufactured in batches of more than one, they also sound like each other.

In August 2002, Rupal Patel, a speech-science professor at Northeastern University, was at a speech-technology conference in Odese, Denmark to present the results of her latest research. People with dramatic speech impairment, she had found, were still able to control the melody of their voices (also called the “prosody” of a voice, or its pitch, tempo, and volume) even when they couldn’t form words; as a result, many people forewent their communication devices when talking to those closest to them, relying on inflection to help convey meaning.

Walking through the conference’s exhibition hall after her presentation, Patel passed a young woman and older man engaged in conversation, their voices indistinguishable from one another—both were using the same text-to-speech system.

Patel paused, listened. The same sound, she realized, was all around her. People throughout the hall—“nearly half the room,” she recalls—were using nearly identical voices.

“That’s when I put two and two together,” she says. “I thought, well, if they have this part of their voice that’s preserved, maybe I would be able to build a voice for them.”

The idea stayed with her. For the next few years, Patel developed and fine-tuned her process, and in 2007 she received a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue the project that would become VocaliD (pronounced “vocality”), a for-profit company that creates personalized voices for text-to-speech systems by blending sounds taken from speech-impaired people with words recorded by healthy donors. (The price of a voice, she says, will ultimately depend on demand.)

The company’s technology is based on the “source-filter theory,” which breaks the production of human speech into two components. One is the source, or the sound made by the vibrations of the vocal cords. The other is the filter, or the vocal tract: the path of these vibrations as they echo through the chambers of the neck and head. Conditions that cause speech impairment mainly affect the filter; the prosody of a voice is controlled by the source, which is usually left intact.

To create a voice, Patel says, “we’re taking the filter, the shape of the vocal tract, from the voice donor, and the source from the individual who’s given us something as limited as a vowel.” After taking a short recording from a recipient—who often can only vocalize as much as an “ahhh” sound—the VocaliD team selects a donor with a similar filter and uses a computer algorithm to layer one over the other. Donations come via the company’s “voice bank,” which opened to the public over Thanksgiving weekend. To donate, a person needs a computer, a microphone, and a few hours of time to record the hundreds of sentences Patel has compiled from old stories and common phrases to encompass all of the sounds of the English language.

From there, she explains, “we chop that blended voice into little snippets of speech that can be rearranged any way, by gluing together little bits of a sentence.”

Patel estimates that somewhere between 500 and 600 people have already donated their voices, and that around 24,000 people have signed up to donate in the future—a number she hopes will allow the team to more effectively pair a recipient with a voice.

“In the past, we were doing some really [basic] matching, like age and gender,” she says. “We’re developing some new techniques to do more sophisticated matching for the kind of voice you have,” taking into account things like “voice quality,” or hoarseness; regional accent; and height and weight, both of which affect the vocal tract.

And further down the road, Patel says, she’d like to look into ways to accommodate VocaliD’s recipients as they age. “If you have a recording of one person going through time, you’ll see that voice is changing,” she says. “Maybe it’s not that you have to get a brand-new donor and recipient. Maybe there’s a way to change it computationally … It would be an exciting thing, if we could build someone a voice when they’re a kid and grow it over time.”

* * *

The voice bank may be new, but the ability of machines to generate human speech predates even electricity.

Over a century before the modern computer would be developed, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen began his work on the first speech-synthesis machine in 1770. The final product, which would take him two decades to complete, used a bellows to simulate lungs, a reed to create vibrations, and rubber “mouth,” with tubes and levers that could be manipulated to create the sounds of vowels and consonants. According to his 1791 book The Mechanism of Human Speech, with a Description of a Speaking Machine, von Kempelen’s creation could imitate human speech well enough for people to recognize phrases in French and Italian.

In 1845, using a bellows design similar to von Kempelen’s, German scientist Joseph Faber unveiled his own talking machine, the “Euphonia,” at Philadelphia’s Musical Fund Hall. The machine, emblazoned with the image of a disembodied female head, had a “ghostly monotone,” historian David Lindsay wrote, but could speak every European language and sing “God Save the Queen.”

Both von Kempelen’s and Faber’s devices caught the attention of Alexander Graham Bell, who used their work as inspiration for his own model of the human vocal tract in 1860, 16 years before filing his patent for the telephone. Bell Labs, the company he later founded, was at the forefront of text-to-speech technology through its transition to the digital age: In 1961, the company was the first to synthesize speech with a computer, using an IBM machine to sing the song “Daisy Bell.” (Author Arthur C. Clarke, who happened to witness the demonstration, later recreated it with Hal, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Stephen Hawking’s voice—based on the “outdated technology” that Intel’s Haussecker referenced—comes from DECTalk, one of the first personal text-to-speech devices. Invented in the early 1980s by Dennis Klatt, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the device originally had only three voices: Hawking’s, “Perfect Paul,” based on Klatt’s own voice; “Beautiful Betty,” based on his wife, and a child’s voice, which he named “Kit the Kid.” DECTalk has since added six additional voices (and dropped the adjectives—the newcomers are simply named “Harry,” “Ursula,” etc.), but Paul quickly became the standard in artificial voices—the voice was so common, in fact, that it was used by the National Weather Service until earlier this year.

“Nowadays, there are more choices than there were 10 years ago,” Patel says, but they remain limited. “[For example,] your GPS can speak in an Australian accent, American accent, male or female. Those are the kinds of choices people can make about their voice, but they’re not specific—there’s not a Bostonian speaking in a Bostonian accent.”

Paul’s ubiquity—and the small size of the pool of current options—throw into stark relief what the voice-impaired have lost. Like fingerprints, each human voice is unique to its owner; even the voices of identical twins have measurable differences.

“It’s really hard to overstate how important the voice is in the way we present ourselves to the world,” says Jody Kreiman, a speech scientist at the University of California Los Angeles’ Bureau of Glottal Affairs and the author of the book Voices and Listeners. “In the same way you look at someone and start drawing conclusions, you hear a voice and start drawing conclusions … Are they in a good mood or a bad mood? Are they healthy? Educational level, [whether] they’re good-looking or not, [whether] they’re a leader.”

“When you lose your voice,” Kreiman adds, “you lose your social self.”

* * *

“The real question is, how fast can we get people their voices?” Patel says. As of a few months ago, the waiting list was about a thousand names long. Each voice takes around 10-15 hours to build, once everything is recorded, but VocaliD has more to do before it can begin work in earnest—there are technological tweaks to be made, money to raise. To keep the eventual cost of a voice as low as possible, Patel is also looking into other ways to market her technology: “You might want [it] if you want an email to be read out loud in your voice,” she said, “or when you’re playing a video game and want to sound like yourself.”

In the meantime, VocaliD has thus far successfully created voices for three people, all teen girls, as part of its beta-testing phase. One of them, Samantha Grimaldo, is featured in a video on the company’s website, where the VocaliD team and Samantha’s mother watch her receive her new voice.

Seated at her family’s kitchen table, she types out a sentence on her tablet: “My favorite food is pizza.”

She’s grinning, though the inflectionless sound that emerges gives no indication of her excitement. Samantha’s new voice doesn’t sound completely natural. It sounds, still, like a robotic voice—but it doesn’t sound like anyone else, either.

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Social network’s hidden resources Fri, 12 Dec 2014 14:24:24 +0000 wellesarmy-740x493People’s social net­works can be quite exten­sive, often bigger than they realize. So Brooke Fou­cault Welles, an assis­tant pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, says it’s not sur­prising that past research indi­cates people can’t always recall everyone in their net­work and every­thing they know about them.

For her part, Fou­cault Welles is pur­suing a new line of research she describes as helping people “acti­vate their net­works.” She says people’s social groups, par­tic­u­larly in the work­place and other pro­fes­sional set­tings, con­tain valu­able con­nec­tions and resources that are under­uti­lized. For instance, a col­league could be a useful resource on a work project or someone in your pro­fes­sional net­work could be the ideal con­nec­tion for a new job. Often, the people who are most rel­e­vant to an individual’s needs are those at the edge of his or her net­work, she explained.

I like to think of these net­works as resources that are hidden in plain sight,” said Fou­cault Welles, whose research focuses on how social net­works shape and con­strain human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “If you don’t have a good sense of who is in your net­work then you can’t leverage what people have to offer.”

Mea­suring and iden­ti­fying the con­se­quences of an individual’s ability to accu­rately acti­vate his or her net­works is a social psy­cho­log­ical con­struct that Fou­cault Welles calls “net­work thinking.” This approach, she says, can be par­tic­u­larly valu­able for the U.S. mil­i­tary, which relies on effi­cient and effec­tive networks.

This fall, Fou­cault Welles received a U.S. Army Research Lab­o­ra­tory young inves­ti­gator grant, with which she will spend the next three years mea­suring and iden­ti­fying “net­work thinking.”

Learning how well someone knows his or her net­work and detecting errors in the person’s rec­ol­lec­tions has tra­di­tion­ally been time-​​consuming and labor-​​intensive, she says. That’s why Fou­cault Welles, with her new grant, will develop a self-​​reporting scale for mea­suring “net­work thinking.”

Over the next year, she will survey North­eastern under­grad­u­ates with ques­tions about their social net­works and then com­pare those responses to what she per­ceives and observes from data gath­ered from their Face­book accounts.

For this project Fou­cault Welles has teamed up with Christo Wilson, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, who will develop a method­ology for col­lecting this Face­book data. Wilson’s research focuses on online social net­works, secu­rity and pri­vacy, and algo­rithmic society.

Once about 200 North­eastern stu­dents have been sur­veyed, Fou­cault Welles will use the scale to deter­mine how “net­work thinking” affects indi­vidual and team performance.

Fou­cault Welles said this research could have tremen­dous trans­la­tional poten­tial for mil­i­tary prac­tices. She also views the scale as a tool to mea­sure how quickly people adapt to new sit­u­a­tions, such as col­lege life. “Stu­dents who are quicker to rec­og­nize a col­lege sup­port net­work are more likely to have an easier tran­si­tion,” she said.

Col­lab­o­rating with Wilson will also create an oppor­tu­nity to set the social sci­ences stan­dards for col­lecting data from social net­works such as Face­book, Fou­cault Welles said. “Right now there are few eth­ical guide­lines for col­lecting data from Face­book,” she said. “We want to estab­lish a track record of researchers doing this eth­i­cally to gen­erate social sci­en­tific insights.”

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Ebert, S’15 Wins Marshall Scholarship Thu, 11 Dec 2014 13:53:57 +0000


Julia Ebert, S’15, has won a Mar­shall Schol­ar­ship to pursue a one-​​year master’s of research in bio­engi­neering at Impe­rial Col­lege London starting in the fall.

Founded by the British gov­ern­ment in 1953 to com­mem­o­rate the Mar­shall Plan, the post­grad­uate schol­ar­ship allows up to 40 intel­lec­tu­ally dis­tin­guished Amer­ican stu­dents to study in the United Kingdom each year.

Ebert is Northeastern’s second stu­dent to receive the award, whose 2015 win­ners were announced last week.

“It’s an honor to receive the Mar­shall Schol­ar­ship and it shows that all the work

I have done up to this point has paid off,” said Ebert.

Ebert is a fifth-​​year behav­ioral neu­ro­science major who applied for the schol­ar­ship through the University Scholars, which houses the university’s Office of Fel­low­ships.

Her aca­d­emic journey began in high school, when her pas­sion for learning led her to pursue the Inter­na­tional Baccalaureate’s psy­chology course. “I got really inter­ested in psy­chology,” she said, “and I wanted to take a more sci­en­tific approach to under­standing the brain.”

Over the past four years, Ebert has fine-​​tuned her aca­d­emic focus through research posi­tions and co-​​op jobs in campus labs and far-​​flung coun­tries. In the fall of 2011, the honors stu­dent and National Merit Scholar started working as a research assis­tant in Northeastern’s Action Lab, which is ded­i­cated to the exper­i­mental and com­pu­ta­tional study of human motor con­trol. Under the direc­tion of pro­fessor Dagmar Sternad, she col­lected and ana­lyzed data from human par­tic­i­pants in motor con­trol exper­i­ments and sub­se­quently won a Barry Gold­water Schol­ar­ship for her research achieve­ments. She is cur­rently fin­ishing her under­grad­uate thesis on learning and long-​​term reten­tion of a bimanual skill.

Julia has the mak­ings of an excel­lent sci­en­tist,” said Sternad, a pro­fessor of physics, biology, and elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering. “She is extremely bright, works inde­pen­dently, and is self-​​motivated.”

Ebert’s next expe­ri­en­tial learning opportunity—a research co-​​op in the autonomous motion depart­ment at the Max-​​Planck Insti­tute for Intel­li­gent Sys­tems in Tübingen, Ger­manykin­dled her interest in robotics and machine learning. There, she designed exper­i­ments using the Cyber­Glove, an input device that mea­sures 19 joint angles in the hand and can be used to test how humans learn to con­trol a high-​​dimensional system. “Con­ducting research has given me insight into how my course work fits together,” said Ebert, who added a com­puter sci­ence minor fol­lowing her ini­tial expe­ri­ence in the Action Lab. “I started taking more math classes and learned how to pro­gram, which has enabled me to do more tech­nical modeling.”

As a Mar­shall Scholar, Ebert hopes to work in Dr. Eti­enne Burdet’s human robotics lab, which aims to design assis­tive devices and vir­tual reality-​​based training for reha­bil­i­ta­tion and surgery. After London, she plans to return to the U.S. to earn her doc­torate in bio­med­ical engi­neering with the goal of becoming an aca­d­emic researcher.

Ebert summed up her career ambi­tions in her per­sonal state­ment for the Mar­shall Schol­ar­ship appli­ca­tion, writing that “My desire to learn has already led me to a field that draws on my inter­ests in every­thing from music to math. Now I want to expand on my pas­sion for neu­ro­science not only to solve the mys­tery of learning, but to employ that infor­ma­tion to improve lives.”

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