Rensselaer Research Review Summer 2009
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It's Not Just TV Anymore
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Professor co-edits special journal issue to explore interaction, development, and design issues

Today’s children are coming of age immersed in video gaming, Web browsing, and instant messaging. Many have cell phones, laptops, and hand-held video games. Others have created avatars of themselves, and some are raising robot pets in virtual worlds. What impact does this technology have on children? A journal issue co-edited by a human-computer interaction (HCI) professor from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a developmental psychology professor from the University of Washington explores the promises and perils ahead for children in technological environments. 

The journal Children, Youth and Environments (CYE) published a special issue in May titled “Children in Technological Environments.” The issue examines the increasing prevalence of technology from various perspectives, including knowledge and education, social and moral development, culture and community, access and equity, relationship to nature, therapy and health, art and expression, and future scenarios. 

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Nathan Freier
Nathan G. Freier, assistant professor of HCI in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, with a joint appointment in Information Technology, at Rensselaer
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Technology as Part of Everyday Life

“Today, technology is part of everyday life, and it can easily mediate or even replace other types of experiences,” said Nathan G. Freier, assistant professor of HCI in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, with a joint appointment in Information Technology, at Rensselaer. “This journal issue provides us with a forum to address this ongoing dialogue regarding the impact of technology on children, and find ways to strike a balance in terms of interaction, development, and design.” 

Articles in this special issue are authored by leading researchers from the United States, Britain, and Japan, and offer insight related to their projects and observations regarding interactive humanoid robots, digital libraries, virtual natural environments, video and online games, hacking, assistive technologies for children with learning disabilities, learning by doing with shareable interfaces, among other topics.

“Through past centuries, technologies have offered enormous benefits to children,” Freier said. “Written language, for example, can be incredibly beautiful, and compared to spoken language, the written word — from clay tablets, to pen and paper, to digital computers — has allowed for new depths and forms of communication and expression, an unfolding of human awareness.”

Human-Computer Interaction

Freier’s research interests fit within the broad area of human-computer interaction with emphasis on technologies for children, social robotics, and value sensitive design. His work explores how children develop socially and morally in the context of increased interactions with apparently intelligent, autonomous systems such as graphical avatars and social robots. His co-author, Peter H. Kahn Jr., is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and adjunct professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. He also serves as director of the university’s Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Lab.

The field of human-computer interaction holds the design and evaluation of digital technologies as central to its mission.  Traditionally, the field has considered the human relationship to technology to be one of ‘use’; but the field is expanding to address the many facets of human-technology interaction that include a focus on emotional, social, and moral experiences, which account for this complexity in the design and evaluation process. Thus, the special issue includes scholarly work on many aspects of children’s relationships to their technological environments.

According to their research, today’s technology is more sophisticated and invasive. Children play multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which allows for large numbers of players to interact by controlling and developing their fictional characters in adventurous game settings. In 2006, MMORPG revenues exceeded $1 billion. Also, video games dominate children’s media entertainment. In more recent years, inexpensive robot pets and online virtual pets have become increasingly popular.

Children and technology image credit: Nicolle Rager, National Science Foundation

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