B i t s  o n  O u r  M i n d s
  Becky Chu, a master’s student in computer science, explains her collaborative project, which employs simulations of wolf spiders’ courtship dances, to Ron Elber, Cornell professor of computer science, during the BOOM event in Upson Hall, on March 5.

No, it’s not anime night in the basement of Goldwin Smith. It’s the seventh annual BOOM (Bits On Our Minds), the annual expo of student projects hosted by the departments of Computer Science and of Electrical and Computer Engineering. On March 5, 50 displays, ranging from pocket-sized robots to stock market simulators, took over three floors of Upson Hall with a display of digital virtuosity.

Chu’s unlikely sounding project is part of a unique collaboration between computer programmers and animal behaviorists. Eileen Hebets, a postdoctoral fellow in neurobiology and behavior, wondered just what it is about the male wolf spider’s elaborate courtship dance that females find intriguing. She found that female spiders, being extremely visually oriented creatures, react with interest to video clips of male spiders performing mating dances. Hebets wanted to be able to edit the video clips—for instance, to systematically change the speed of the dance or the size or color of the male’s forelegs— in order to track which characteristics were most important. To help her do that, Chu wrote a piece of software that allows a researcher to construct a virtual male wolf spider, whose behavior and appearance can be manipulated interactively.“I think of it as kind of like a dating service,” Chu joked. Whether the female spiders will be fooled remains to be seen.

Nearby, Jay Ayres ’04 and Lin Zhu ’03 displayed a few of their small research objects: rectangular blocks just big enough to house a couple of AA batteries and bristling with electronic sensors. The devices, known as “cougar motes,” collect information about their environment (such as light, heat and motion) and communicate with each other, forming a kind of loosely organized database that continues to function even if one or more of the motes is destroyed.“There’s just enormous potential for what you can do with this,” said Ayres, a computer science major. For example, the motes could be used by the military to scout out areas remotely (in fact, the project receives funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Or, in a more benign application, industrial workers could use them to monitor levels of vibration throughout a factory, sensing mechanical breakdowns about to occur.

Although most presenters hailed from computer science or engineering, students from traditionally less byte-crunching parts of campus also were represented. Development sociology major Katrina Becker ’03 demonstrated a couple of “on/off switches,” part of a project she calls “reflective design,” on the relationship between people and technology. The “switches”—one made of wood and the other covered in plush velvet— don’t have any particular function. Their purpose, said Becker, is to study how people react to objects that are obviously technological in nature, and how design and appearance influence people’s experience of technology. By gauging how people respond to their objects, Becker and her collaborators hope to come up with ways to improve the way technology is designed and developed.“The idea is that you get people incorporated into design, to meet real needs rather than just feeding consumption,” she said.

Other BOOM ’03 projects ranged from a slew of computer games to a program that translates the American Sign Language alphabet into printed letters. This year’s BOOM also, for the first time, was an online exhibit as well as a physical one: Each project had an accompanying display on the World Wide Web. The online display can be accessed through BOOM’s Web site: http:// www.cis.cornell.edu/boom.

BOOM ’03 was supported in part by grants from Microsoft and Credit Suisse First Boston.

By Lissa Harris
Cornell Chronicle,
March 13, 2003