Andreas Stefik's childhood love of video games and passion for music, while seemingly unrelated, have blended together to result in groundbreaking research in programming technologies for the blind and visually impaired. The computer science professor is working on better ways of understanding, and interacting with, computer programming languages and compilers. The winner of the 2011 Java Innovation Award for his work on the NSF-funded Sodbeans programming environment, Stefik looks forward to including UNLV students in the expansion of his innovative research.
I have been living with my family in Illinois for the past few years, but my wife and I wanted to get closer to the family connections I have in the West. Besides that, UNLV is a great school environment.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I enjoyed hacking at video games when I was a kid. I used to have one called Xwing, and there were certain levels I just couldn't complete. So, I somehow figured out where in the executable files it was storing information about the levels, and modified them to make them easier. I really had no idea what I was doing, but it was fun and it worked.
What motivated you to do so much work with the blind and visually impaired?
The research related to blind and visually impaired computer users started from my music background. I've enjoyed making audio files and clips and composing songs for a long time. When I made it to graduate school, I worked with a professor who was really interested in audio applications, as well, so we started experimenting with adding sound into programming environments.
Eventually, we began to find that there is a rich community of blind and visually impaired people who either wanted to learn programming or were already professionals. Some of the technologies they had to use, just to get started, left something to be desired, and inventing something better seemed like an obvious thing to do.
Nowadays, some of these technologies are in common use all over the country for blind children or professionals to use. There are quite a few schools for the blind that use them. We hold a yearly training workshop in Vancouver, Wash., and we've had blind programmers from all walks of life involved.
What kinds of cool research will you be working on this year?
I'm developing a programming language (called Quorum) and working on mostly empirical studies to confirm/refute various theories that are out there. One project that I am considering is hooking people up to brain scanners and asking them to program a computer. A colleague and I have been working on some ideas on that for a while, and we're close to figuring out whether it will actually work. That area is pretty strange and interpreting the data is very difficult.
As for my work with blind and visually impaired people, I'm building some new tools to connect into Braille displays. Another colleague and I are talking about starting a national competition to create accessible applications at schools for the blind using Quorum, my programming language.
What's the biggest misconception about your field?
In a university computer science program, people sometimes think that you learn what all of the errors are in Windows. I can't tell you how many times I am asked a question like "Hey, I've got this error that says 0x00000127 -- what does that mean?" You can Google those codes pretty easily.
Proudest moment in your life?
I know it's cliche?, but I have a young daughter. She always wins those moments.
What is your favorite thing about working with students?
Ideas! Students have wonderful, naive, completely crazy, and, often, absolutely brilliant ideas. The thing about academic conferences is that you see the same people over and over again. But with students, they come in fresh because they haven't been to all the conferences, read all the literature, or worked in a field for very long. They don't have as much potential for group-think, which can sometimes happen in academia. I really love brainstorming with students on what "might" work.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
That I love Battlestar Galactica. Wait, that won't surprise anyone...
What can't you work without?
Headphones. I often work on tools for blind people, which use audio, so, I really need them.
Who is your hero?
I have a friend who is a former Marine who came back to the states on disability and is now starting a comic book line, going to school, raising a child, and all sorts of amazing stuff. I think that's just incredible.
Mac or PC?
I'm pretty non-partisan on this issue, but I do love my Mac.
Do your music and computer science backgrounds ever collide?
Definitely! Many years ago I worked with an East Coast composer named Ben Johnston, who is really well known in academic circles for his work on microtonal music. It's a long story, but, he invented a music notation system and asked me to figure out how it could be made easier to play. It took me a while, but eventually I did. A few years later, a string quartet performed this work, and I ended up publishing a journal article on it. There are now a couple of albums of that work available on Amazon.com. My favorite is Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 2,3,4&9.
-- Compiled by Shannon Spollen, communications director for the Hughes College of Engineering