Dec. 7, 1995
Vol. 15, No. 7

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    Now you see it: Psychology research, new computer labs

    teaching aided by new computer labs New Psychology Department computer laboratories in Green Hall are helping to expand research in language and communication and provide better ways to teach complicated concepts.

    The laboratories, part of the Center for Computational Psychology, aid University researchers who are working on computational models of visual perception, speech perception, language understanding and development, gesture, conceptual representation, categorization, hormonal cycles, and judgment and decision making.

    The center is an invaluable resource for scholars and students, said Howard Nusbaum, Associate Professor in Psychology and Director of the Center for Computational Psychology. "A great deal of work is done here on the role of gesture in communication, for example, and that work will be greatly facilitated by the use of computers."

    Researchers studying gesture, such as David McNeill, Professor and Chairman of Psychology, will be able to work directly with videotaped images on the center's computers, using three-dimensional computer models of arms and hands to trace the movements of their videotaped subjects. By moving the model on the screen to overlay the movements in the videotape, the researchers will be able to analyze the gestures and their relation to speech more quantitatively, Nusbaum said. Previously, researchers have had to use a more cumbersome procedure of watching a segment of videotape, stopping it, recording information and then continuing the process.

    "With a computer, all of that work can be combined," said Paul Pomerleau, Director of Computing Facilities for the Center for Computational Psychology. "Researchers will also be able to eliminate vast portions of the videotapes that do not include gestures and focus instead on those portions that do."

    In addition to supporting research, the laboratories have become an important teaching center, Nusbaum said. Complex ideas that are sometimes difficult to explain and understand become much clearer when the computer is used as an instructional tool, he said.

    "For example, we have a program that allows students to speak into a microphone and see immediately what their speech looks like as an acoustic signal. When we teach students about speech, one of the things we want them to understand is that speech is not a series of discrete sounds -- words are not separated by spaces, but rather the acoustic structure of speech varies continuously in time," Nusbaum said.

    Another computer program permits students to see how visual information is processed in different parts of the brain. Using a model of neurophysiological processing created by Hugh Wilson, Professor in Ophthalmology & Visual Science, students can watch as a visual image is transformed to represent the neural activity of different cells responding to the image.

    In addition to the computer laboratory, the department has developed a site on the Internet (http://www.ccp.uchicago.edu) to allow rapid access to its research products. The site provides information about the Psychology Department and the Center for Computational Psychology as well as about the department's faculty members and graduate students. The site also provides some resources for courses in the department and, in the near future, will allow browsers to participate in psychological research.