Between two worlds…

My research lies between two worlds: the physical world and the digital world. This ever expanding, interdisciplinary space includes design, artistic expression, engineering and computer science. What began in human factors and ergonomics to understand human-machine operations then expanded to include computers, graphical user interfaces, keyboards and mice into what is now human-computer interaction research. However, we are seeing this space expand once again. Smartphones, portable tablets and cheap LCDs are putting displays in almost every hand, home and work place.  Small, internet-enabled devices and sensors are embedded throughout our environment, changing how we interact, understand and experience the world around us.

But what does this mean to the everyday person? How will computing systems integrate and use these displays, devices and sensors in our daily life? What new and exciting technologies and services can we create? And how will this affect and change our lives for the better or, perhaps, for the worse? These are the types of questions I want to try to answer in my research and have fun with in my personal life.

Past Research Projects

Social Orbits: Overlapping our social and information activities (Dissertation, 2009-2016)

The way people organize information on their computing devices has been left virtually unchanged since personal computers were first introduced. The average computer user manually organizes and tags their many files, emails, calendars and other multimedia. This leaves an information space that is fragmented across multiple applications and devices.

This research claims that this information, this data, that we encounter, organize and re-find can be associated with some part of our personal, social world. Our social world, or social orbits, is made up of the people and groups from our physical face-to-face interactions and our digital, online communication.

We argue that our personal information management (PIM) systems should support information re-finding using the social context in which we interact with our information. For example, when a person is in a meeting, all the information will be automatically tagged with the people and groups who are currently co-presence. Furthermore, if a person receives an email, that email and any attachments should be tagged based on the sender, receiver, etc. To re-find a document, the user can request all information based on who was at that meeting or who sent the email attachment.


B. Sawyer. The Physical-Social Context in Information Refinding. January 2016.


B. Sawyer, F. Quek, W. Wong, M. Motani, S. Chu Yew Yee, M. Perez-Quinones. Using Physical-Social Interactions to Support Information Re-finding. ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI ’12.

Musical Instruments MAKEr Camp (Summers, 2012-2015)

What do design, DIY, robotics, engineering, and music all have in common? They all combine to create the successful ingredients for ICAT’s musical instruments MAKEr camp! ICAT researchers and graduate students welcome thirty middle and high school-aged students to a week long camp designed to harness students’ creativity and encourage them to act on their curiosity.

Students were provided Arduinos, cardboard, electronic sensors, wood and wiring (also including anything they could get their hands on) and were challenged to build an electronic instrument. They used a GUI programming environment called PD-L2Ork to program the sounds and effects of their custom instruments. Students built custom drums, wind and string instruments and even a room that could be played as an instrument.

An article and pictures from a local newspaper can be found here.

All other information can be found here.

Recent Publications:

Sawyer, B., Forsyth, J., O’Connor, T., Bortz, B., Finn, T., Baum, L., Bukvic, I., Knapp, B., Webster, D. Form, Function and Performances in a Musical Instrument MAKErs Camp. The 44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. Denver, CO, USA. March 2013.

Connected Vehicle Derby (Spring 2014)

Kids brought their own cardboard cars; we gave them the connected vehicle technology!

The Connected Vehicle Derby introduced middle schoolers to the future of smart, connected vehicles and highways. Heats of 7 raced in different modes while their collisions, speed and lap times were sensed and displayed inside their cars and on a large scoreboard.

This work is a collaboration between Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT) during the Spring of 2014.

Distracted Driver Tablet Game (2013-2014)

Distracted Driver is driving simulation game that engages early drivers in completing text message puzzles while maneuvering their car on a congested road. Players learn the dangers and difficulties of driving while texting.

This work is a collaboration between Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology (ICAT) during the Fall of 2013 thru Spring 2014.

RaPLab: Rapid Prototyping Lab for CHCI@VT (2011-2013)

The RaPLab is established with a grant from the National Science Foundation entitled “Display and Device Ecologies”. The fundamental premise of the grant is that our interaction with the world of computing needs to transcend the glass wall of screen and keyboard (or virtual reality environment and real-world for that matter). The line of demarcation between the physical and informational world need not be so brightly drawn that we have to come to a predefined place where the two worlds meet. In this vision, our mobile devices and other information devices function together with displays in the environment to bridge the physical-information divide.

In this world, information objects are as real as physical things. The user may appropriate any display and interactive affordance in the environment to materialize and engage informational objects. For this to happen, some operational reality needs to exist so that there is a clear set of expectations of interoperability among displays and devices. This is our concept of display and device ecologies.

Recent Publications:

Chu, S., Quek, F., Endert, A., Chung, H. and Sawyer, B. “The Physicality of Technological Devices in Education: Building a digital experience for learning”. In Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Learning Technologies (ICALT 2012).

The Life Spaces Project (Singapore/NUS, 2008-2011)

From 2008 to 2011, my research and dissertation stemmed from a collaborative NRF grant between Virginia Tech and the National University of Singapore (NUS) called Life Spaces. I spent the summer of 2008 conducting research at the Ambient Intelligence Lab in NUS. The Life Spaces project aim to create an interactive physical-digital environment where places and spaces come alive to inform users and create new ways of interactions.

The vision and architecture of the Life Spaces project became the initial motivation for my current dissertation topic (i.e., to organize and re-find information using people and/or physical-social interactions).

Undergrad Projects (2003-2007)

Adding soon…maybe…