Alumni Snapshot: Daniel Avrahami (CS'05,'07)

The goal of bringing a positive experience to computer users led Daniel Avrahami to pursue a master’s degree in HCI at Carnegie Mellon.

  • Hebrew University of Jerusalem, B.S., computer science, 1999
  • Carnegie Mellon University, M.S., human-computer interaction, 2005
  • Carnegie Mellon University, Ph.D., human-computer interaction, 2007

Growing up in Israel during the 1970s, Daniel Avrahami became interested in computers. “My mom worked as a systems analyst for social security,” he says. “Back then, they used IBM mainframes with terminals in their offices. My mother taught me how to change the color of the cursor, and I would sit there and draw flags of different countries, one pixel at a time.”

In fact, technology, psychology and design—the pillars of human-computer interaction—surrounded Avrahami’s early life; his father is an architect, his stepmother is a costume and stage designer, and his stepfather is a cognitive psychologist—a field his mother joined later. And while Avrahami knew he wanted to go into computer science, he also knew that his interests went beyond code.

“I distinctly remember an experience during undergrad that made me realize I wanted to focus on human-computer interaction,” Avrahami says. “I was taking a mix of hard-core CS courses as well as an HCI elective. I was working all night on a programming assignment in the computer lab, and when my program was ready, I executed it, and as I hoped, the terminal read some number like, ‘358.’”

He raised his hands in victory, then realized that although getting the desired result was making him happy, when he built a really good user interface in his HCI class, it made everyone else happy, as well.

That feeling of bringing satisfaction to computer users led Avrahami to pursue a master’s degree in HCI at Carnegie Mellon, where he was matched with HCII professor Scott Hudson. “Scott was working on creating the Ph.D. program in human-computer interaction, the first in the world,” Avrahami says. “He offered me a research assistant position, and I got the opportunity to work on exciting research that explored the boundaries between the digital and physical world. I continued on to get my Ph.D. because research was too much fun.”

One of Avrahami’s Ph.D. projects was a tool to allow product designers to create rough prototypes of interactive systems using different 3-D forms.

“I have a lot of appreciation for the work of industrial designers and how they explore physical forms. But as devices became more and more digital, it was clear that we needed to be able to quickly prototype physical devices while simultaneously designing their interactivity,” Avrahami says. “It’s interesting to think about how much has changed in the 15 years since we started working in this area. Back then, our focus was on helping designers. Since then, the field has grown dramatically along with the maker movement, and these kinds of tools are designed for everyone.”

Earlier this year, Hudson and five of his current and past Ph.D. students, including Avrahami, James Fogarty, Johnny Lee, Robert Xiao and current HCII faculty member Chris Harrison, were honored with the Allen Newell Award for Research Excellence for what the nominating committee called “highly innovative and deep contributions,” including the toolkit on which Avrahami worked.

After earning both his master’s and Ph.D. at CMU, Avrahami spent four years at Intel Research Seattle. He then joined the Strategic Planning Group within Intel’s PC division, where he helped create and grow a user experience team. Today, he is at FXPAL, a small industrial research lab in Silicon Valley, where his work focuses on interaction, communication and telepresence. “FXPAL is a stimulating interdisciplinary environment that puts a lot of emphasis on collaboration,” Avrahami says.

In fact, the importance of collaboration is one of the best lessons he learned at CMU, Avrahami says: “At CMU you learn that true experts are often outside your immediate circle—in other departments, universities or companies—and that if you’re willing to cross bridges and seek them out, what you build and what you learn will always be greater.”

For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu