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Ellen's interest in design computing started in 1990 as a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Frustrated by the impoverished interface of advanced CAD software, she started programming and implemented sketching software to support design in her PhD research, the Right Tool at the Right Time – investigation of freehand drawing as an interface to knowledge based design tools.

Design Computing

Ellen is committed to the design and building of creative design computing tools, starting from understanding the human intelligence and creativity involved in the design process and leading to improving our interaction with computers beyond the desktop into the physical world. Currently the focus of her work is to investigate and implement the vision of Things that Think, Spaces that Sense and Places that Play - a smart living environment in which computing technologies embedded in the built environment (e.g., objects, furniture, building, and space) support everyday happy healthy living.

Ellen's research interests are in: (1) computer aided architectural design, especially sketch computing, (2) creativity and design cognition, including creativity support tools and design studies, (3) tangible and embedded interaction, and most recently (4) computing for health.

Computer-Aided Architectural Design

Trained as an architect, Ellen's interest in design thinking led her to develop diagrammatic and sketching interfaces for computer-aided architectural design. She asked, " What's in a hand-drawn design diagram that a computer should understand?" To answer the question Ellen studied design drawing and developed several computer-based sketching tools to explore and support design activities. Her work reached broad and diverse communities in architectural education, in artificial intelligence (AI), in computer science, and the general public. Her Thinking with Diagrams paper was included in a special Architectural Review student edition distributed to 3000 students in UK architecture schools, and an early version of the paper was cited in Wikipedia about architectural drawing. Her Design Sketches and Sketch Design Tools article was ranked 14th on the Top 25 Hottest articles during Jan-March 2008 by Science Direct in the subject area: Computer Science, Journal: Knowledge-Based Systems. Ellen also worked with students to develop tools for sketching in 3D, including annotation in virtual environments to support collaboration and communication, sketch-to- building simulation, design evaluation, space making, and sketch-to-fabrication. She explored how sketching can serve as an interface to create or interact in 3D.

Creativity and Design Cognition

To support creative design, Ellen implemented diagram indexing and retrieval for shape-based finding of visual references, graphics interpreter of design actions, organization of a case-based design aid for architecture, as well as context recognition for designer's Ambiguous Intentions in their sketches. In design studies and creativity and cognition, Ellen has worked with students on the analysis of design, the role of physical objects and environment in creativity, and patterns of design process and collaboration.

Tangible and Embedded Interaction

Ellen's transition from 3D sketching to tangible and physical sketching follows the idea of "thinking with your hands." Tangible computing research engages designers to manipulate and experiment with embedded computing, to "sketch" with physical objects that comprise our built environment. Starting with the Navigational Blocks project to navigate information space, her tangible computing projects explore architectural form making, strategy games, energy awareness, construction kits, interactive furniture and responsive environments.

Computing for Health Applications

Ellen has worked on a variety of computing for health applications – using technology to encourage hand-washing in a smart patient room, a glove for spinal cord injury rehabilitation, an object identification tool for the visually impaired, a mobile health and robotic companion for children, and to promote employee active lifestyle, and the Clock Reader, a system for automatically scoring the Clock Drawing Test that doctors use to screen for mild cognitive impairment. Instead of asking "What's in a design sketch that a computer should understand?" this project asks "What's in a dementia patient's drawing that a computer should understand? These efforts apply design computing and human-centered computing knowledge into a smart living environment to help people live happy healthy lives.