Films inspire researcher’s work on futuristic computer displays
As a teenager in 1990s war-torn Kosovo, Alban Rrustemi loved a good crime film – especially one with computing gadgets.
Growing up in a community in Kosovo with limited access to computers, Alban Rrustemi says he was “intrigued by films where the police could look up anybody in a database to find out who they are and what they do. I kept thinking, ‘Somebody would have to feed all of that information into the computer somehow – and that’s not really feasible.’”
But as the Internet revolution began sweeping across Eastern Europe a few years later, Rrustemi’s scepticism turned to elation. “I realised that ‘somebody’ doesn’t have to be just one person,” he says. “A whole community of Internet users could contribute to this ever-growing pool of knowledge for everyone’s use.”
Rrustemi’s fascination with the power of technology to promote and facilitate the flow of information eventually landed him at the University of Cambridge in the UK, one of the world’s leading research universities. A Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship not only provided financial support for his doctoral studies, but it also allowed him to work with leading researchers in the area of display and sensor network technologies.
"Without the Microsoft scholarship, it would have been extremely difficult for me to do this exciting work."
While earning his doctorate, Rrustemi also was selected for an internship at the Microsoft Research laboratory in Cambridge. “It was obvious from the outset that Alban had a true aptitude and passion for technology that should be nurtured,” says Steve Hodges, manager of the Sensors and Devices Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge.
How people interact
As an intern, Rrustemi worked closely with Microsoft researchers on several projects involving technologies that influence how people interact with computing devices. One of his most memorable experiences was contributing to a research paper on the development of ThinSight, an optical sensing system that enables computer users to interact directly with on-screen objects using their fingertips.
“Without the Microsoft scholarship, it would have been extremely difficult for me to do this exciting work,” he says. “But beyond that, having access to some of the best minds in the world at Microsoft Research gave me tremendous experience and laid the foundation for my whole PhD dissertation.”
Rrustemi’s doctoral thesis presents a novel approach to designing interactive displays with scalable resolution, called computing surfaces, which are assembled using small adjoining display units that respond to touch-based input. Such displays can extend the power and capabilities of technology beyond the confines of a traditional computer monitor and mouse.
“With computing surfaces that are flexible like wallpaper and that respond to touch, there’s no reason why your computer screen can’t be part of your wall or your desk or any other piece of furniture,” says Rrustemi.
“Advertising posters or any other static visual information that you see while walking down the street could be more dynamic and provide richer information.”
After receiving his doctorate in November 2008, Rrustemi was hired as a senior software engineer at a company that develops complex event-processing systems – essentially, tools for managing and analysing patterns of intricate streams of information in real time. He is pleased to be contributing to the development of new technologies that once existed only in movies.
“Access to information is quickly becoming the most powerful means for people to accomplish anything,” says Rrustemi, whose future plans include returning to Kosovo to help improve its educational programmes. “The support I’ve received from Microsoft Research has given me amazing opportunities and freedom to pursue my research goals of bringing information to more people, in more useful ways.”