Laboratory of Interactive Technologies

Where humans meet technologies

Irrespective of their educational background, each of our team members is interested in several different fields. That’s why working here is so fascinating. Cezary Biele, head of the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies in the National Information Processing Institute, in conversation with Monika Redzisz.

Dr Cezary Biele,
associate professor
Head of the
Laboratory of
Interactive Technologies

Cezary Biele, PhD is a psychologist, psycho-physiologist and biologist by profession, in addition to being a passionate sociologist. He is interested in the role of emotions in interaction with technology and the impact of new technologies on social functioning. He has many years’ experience in both academic and commercial marketing research.

He heads the the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies at the National Information Processing Institute, where research is conducted on AI and smart-home technology, the functioning of humans in virtual reality, child safety on the internet, digital parenting and 3D persuasion.

Monika Redzisz: Interactive technologies is a very broad area. What exactly do you do in the Laboratory of Interactive Technologies?

Cezary Biele: Human-Technology Interaction (HTI). It used to be called Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), but the name has been changed because in recent years we have seen a boom in other technologies beyond only computers; today we use smartphones, voice assistants and virtual reality. Currently, one of the most important domains our lab deals with is virtual reality. This is a fast-developing area; VR is becoming more intuitive every year. We are interested in how people interact with that technology. VR is also a great tool for conducting psychological studies.

Why? Is it because you can observe human behaviors and reflexes in a safe virtual space?

You can not only observe, but also study all kinds of psychological phenomena which can be difficult to analyse in the real world. Research in this area is conducted in collaboration with psychologists from the Institute of Psychology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. In our lab we have a team of very good analysts specialising in data processing. In VR you can record the movement of a user’s head and arms. Body movement is closely connected with emotions. Using the data on how a person moves helps us to find out what emotions they feel. We can tell if the emotions are positive or negative, strong or weak.

Is experiencing reality in 3D more intuitive to us? Does it generate stronger emotions?

Yes, but it is not fully unequivocal. Together with Grzegorz Banerski, Agata Kopacz and Katarzyna Abramczuk, we are currently working on a project focused on how people behave during a flood. Our research question is: can we use simulations with 3D graphics to help people better remember how they should act during a flood? One of the tools we used in our research was an eye tracker. We wanted to check what image elements people were really focusing on. The result we got was complicated. It turned out that simple messages on a neutral background were the ones that people memorised best. On the other hand, realistic 3D animations of a flood get people more motivated for action. They really evoke stronger emotions. We want to develop an ‘ideal’ flood warning that would both motivate people to act and help them to remember what they should do.

You also work with voice assistants.

Yes, that’s the domain of Jarek Kowalski. We analysed how the assistants are perceived by the elderly. It turned out that those who participated in our project got used to the new technology very fast. Although the functionalities of assistants and smartphones are very similar, they are perceived in a completely different manner. The voice is the most natural way of communication. Also, the elderly’s biggest limitation is their reduced motor skills. That problem disappears when voice assistants are involved.

At the moment, Jarek is analysing how much people internalise the technology and to what extent they treat it as a part of themselves. For example, their smartphone or their Facebook account. He’s looking for the answer to the question, “To what extent is my Facebook account a part of myself? How much would it hurt if I had to shut it down and lose everything I had there?” We have discovered that people cherish some technologies and perceive them as a part of themselves.

Apart from social studies, we do various other research connected with user experience. We work for the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, but also internally for other labs. We audit almost all systems developed in the National Information Processing Institute. Our task is to ensure they are user-friendly.

Does that mean that you build a bridge between system developers and users?

Yes. Creators must know how people interact with the tools they have developed, what has a positive impact and what constitutes a hindrance. They are engineers. Their point of view on some aspects is different. They are focused on developing a fully functional solution and meeting all technical requirements. Our job is to show them how the solution is seen by the users.

We participate in the large ebalanceplus project implemented under the Horizon 2020 programme. The project involves over ten European countries. The idea is to introduce an energy system that would save energy. Let’s say that solar panels in a house have generated surplus electric power. In that case, the best thing to do would be to use the surplus locally, without sending it over large distances. But people would need to agree to allow the system to decide to turn on their device every day between say 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. The problem is: how do you talk them into it? What would make them agree? What arguments would make sense to them? What are the biggest barriers for them? We are working on a questionnaire that will help us learn about what people think about it. Information wise, it is going to be the starting point for the creators of the technology. If the system is created, we will also do user tests.

Essentially, these are psychological studies. You study human emotions and reactions.

We are somewhere in between. It is very interesting but it is also a source of problems. Sometimes psychologists say that it goes beyond psychology and computer scientists say it goes beyond computer science. I have seen that kind of approach several times, especially in the case of grants. I had to submit a project to the National Science Centre two times. I first filed the project with the psychological panel, where I was told that it wasn’t psychology and that I should have submitted my project to the computer science panel. When I did, I was informed that it wasn’t computer science. I often felt as if I was treading on a no-man’s land.

Can somebody with a background in the humanities apply for a job in your laboratory?

Sure! Our team consists of people who specialise in a variety of fields; they range from psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and cultural experts, to management graduates, to computer scientists, programmers and machine learning specialists.

The best ideas are created in interdisciplinary teams like yours.

Oh yes, that’s great! All our crazy humanistic ideas can be quickly counter-checked by computer scientists. But in all seriousness, we are all, irrespective of our educational background, interested in several different fields. This is why we wanted to work in a lab like ours.

Human-technology interactions is a promising area. Voice assistants and virtual reality are becoming our everyday reality. Especially now, during the global pandemic, our interactions with technology have become more frequent.

I agree, this is an interesting period in our history. We are working and learning from home. We can see how much more has to be done to get all those tools, e.g. for videoconferencing, to work seamlessly. Everything was fine when we used them occasionally. But when all conferences are held online all of the sudden, we do not feel comfortable anymore. We miss how dynamic and spontaneous our face-to-face conversations were. I feel that the conversations we are now having are more like monologues delivered one by one by each participant of a meeting. They are not dialogues anymore.

On the other hand, you can’t help noticing how necessary all those instant messaging apps are. Had the pandemic come fifteen years ago, working from home wouldn’t have been possible. But it’s not only about providing information; it’s also about creating and maintaining ties. Thanks to the technology we have today, we are still a team although each of us is staying at home. In emergency situations technology proves indispensable. An ordinary messaging app suddenly has an important social role to play. The same goes for voice assistants. The young and the healthy do not have to use them, but the elderly, the sick and the disabled consider them as life-saving devices. Everything depends on the situation you are in. Technology must be compatible with the user’s needs.

Do you think that in the future we will be meeting in a virtual world?

Absolutely. I am planning to organise a VR conference that cannot be held in the real life. That will be the first conference of that type in Poland, or maybe even in Europe. The best system to do that is probably Altspace VR, which has so far been used mostly for entertainment. In that system, each user has their own cartoonish avatar. Actually, the whole world looks cartoonish, as in a 3D video game. You join the system and there you are: you get your cartoonish arms and you can move them. You can approach other users and talk to them.

I think that we will soon witness an explosion in such technologies. Just take a look at what happened to Teams: the number of users increased from 32 to 44 million in just two weeks. Facebook announced last year that it would launch its VR Horizon Facebook system. If it does, that will be a massive success.