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Going Global

A class designs products that solve problems in the developing world.

Linda Cicero

NETWORKING: Nass hooks students up with venture capitalists.

Sneaker-clad Clifford Nass practically bounces from one end of the lecture hall stage to the other. The computer scientist-turned-sociologist is an animated one-man show who mixes PowerPoint slides with provocative asides to keep students engaged and guessing.

“Hideously complicated computers need user-friendly interfaces,” he says in a discussion of the GUI (graphical user interface) revolution. But “how the heck can you translate an interface” into various languages without stepping on cultural taboos?

It’s a challenge he throws out on the first day of winter quarter to the 92 undergraduates enrolled in Communications 169, Computers and Interfaces: Psychological and Social Issues. They’ve all come to the class with one goal in mind—to design a cool technological product to solve one problem in one developing country.

There are no prerequisites for Nass’s course. Students of all backgrounds study the psychology of how real people interact with everything from neat little gadgets to the World Wide Web. “It’s about technology, so we get computer types,” Nass says. “But its approach is more social sciency, so we get those types. And because it doesn’t require significant knowledge of technology, we get a lot of humanist types who want to know what an interface is.”

As Anna Otieno puts it, “You don’t have to go to the product design lab and make an actual thing. You can do everything with descriptions and pictures.” Otieno, ’03, now a master’s student in media studies, was randomly assigned to a Comm 169 design group with three other students last year—computer science major Wei Hsu, ’03, science, technology and society major Ross Stewart, ’03, and communications and political science major Malia Skaer, ’05.

As Skaer was listening to a guest lecturer in a bioethics course one evening, she unexpectedly found a project for her Comm 169 group. A doctor who worked for Interplast, a nonprofit organization that provides free reconstructive plastic surgery for children and adults in developing countries, was saying that American surgeons and Vietnamese nurses working in Ho Chi Minh City faced one insurmountable barrier: communication. “If there was any way to solve that, he said, they’d be able to perform many more surgeries,” Skaer recalls.

Within several weeks, the design group had sketched out a plan for ICE, or International Communication Essential. A handheld computing device with a touch screen and voice recognition technology, ICE stores images and texts of medical terms on a memory card in both English and Vietnamese. An American doctor in the middle of a procedure could say, “translate scalpel,” and a picture of the instrument would appear on the PDA screen with captions in both languages; the device would also pronounce the word “scalpel” and the Vietnamese equivalent. The portable device would synch up to a computer station, or ICEberg, that records patients’ medical information prior to surgery and also stores instructions for postsurgical care.

After presenting ICE to their classmates, the four students took the project to the Big Idea Festival that Nass hosted on campus last spring for 150 of his closest venture capital friends. In March, the ICE group is scheduled to meet with the founder of a European start-up who might be interested in producing and marketing the device. Although no student designs have yet made it to market, ideas from a number of projects—including a karaoke approach to literacy and a method to produce cheap eyeglasses—appear in products now sold around the world.

This is the fourth year Nass has taught Comm 169, and he says in any given year students may design 34 projects for 27 different countries. He also acknowledges that the course has changed the way he looks at his own research. “I’m a consumer guy—I study the most complex interfaces in the developed world, and I sell talking Barney dolls and BMWs and Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard [products],” he says. “But now I look at things differently. I think, ‘Son of a gun, you could do that!’ ”

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