Hasso-Plattner-InstitutSDG am HPI
Hasso-Plattner-InstitutDSG am HPI



Interview with Dr. Thijs Roumen

Thijs Roumen was a PhD student in Human Computer Interaction at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI). He was supervised by Prof. Dr. Patrick Baudisch, Head of the chair of Human Computer Interaction at HPI. Now he is working as an Assistant Professor at the faculty of Information Science at Cornell Tech.

Thijs Roumen
Thijs Roumen (picture: privat)

"I think if we make fabrication technology available for discretionary use, we may develop entirely different ways we interact with the physical matter around us.”


Hello Thijs Roumen, a lot has changed for you since you finished your PhD at HPI. We would be happy to know more about your new environment, the development of your work, and what you are up to these days in general.


Congratulations to your new position as assistant professor at Cornell Tech. What do you hope to gain from your new position?  Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to?

I cannot wait to start building my own lab (the Matter of Tech lab) with a team of top-notch students to work on the numerous big challenges we have ahead of us in making digital fabrication a mainstream phenomenon. At Cornell Tech and in NYC I have access to collaborations with some of the best researchers in the world as well as extremely talented students. It is going to be thrilling to see what we can achieve together. And on a more personal note, I also very much look forwards to live the amazing buzz of NYC.


You were a PhD student at the Chair of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at HPI with Prof. Dr. Patrick Baudisch. Which department will you be working for at Cornell Tech?

I am part of the faculty of Information Science at Cornell Tech. This faculty formed because professors at the faculty of computer science felt the need to work together with more faculties of other departments resulting in a beautiful synergy of interdisciplinary collaboration that later spun off into its own faculty of information science. This makes it very different from most other information science departments that grew out of library sciences. Our faculty is much more technical in nature.


Your field of research is in digital fabrication, a subfield of HCI, and in your PhD thesis, you focused on specific software systems for laser cutting. Where did your interest come from to do research in this very particular area?

I have always been fascinated with the ability to create physical products and enabling others to do so too. I thus did a BSc in Industrial Design at Eindhoven University of Technology where I was given a wonderful opportunity to interact with many fabrication machines. I there realized that it is great to design products myself, but my impact could be much larger if I make this technology available to many more users. I therefore took a more computing oriented master by studying IT Product Design at the SDU in Denmark. After that I joined Prof Shengdong Zhao at the National University of Singapore as a research assistant and saw how I could do research using a combination of my skills in product design and IT in a field called HCI. Sheng truly opened the doors for me to that community, when I then decided to do a PhD, I looked who would be the best advisor with similar interests in HCI and was fortunate enough that Shen introduced me to Prof. Patrick Baudisch. 


What possibilities does laser cutting and the creation of 3D models offer for the broad mass of people? To your opinion, which professions can particularly benefit from this technology in the next years and why?

This is a great question. I think the opportunities are very wide ranging and we only begin to imagine its possible impact. When speculating on the future of digital fabrication, I tend to look back at how the introduction of digital computing changed the way we interface with information. Back when computing took place in big research labs and homebrew computer clubs; it was unclear what impact it could possibly have on society. Maybe it allows for some gimmicky applications and in highly specialized research fields (e.g., security, rocket science) solving complex differential equations faster than any human could. Nobody (maybe except for a handful of visionaries) expected that everyone would have multiple computing devices and that pretty much all intelligent work as well as entertainment involves computing today.

We are seeing something similar with fabrication now, it surely is used in industrial manufacturing and hobbyists (aka makers) have embraced it as great tech to build a wide range of products with properties that were very hard and sometimes impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing. Simply doing research to give “more power to makers” and continuing the current trend is not really the way forwards (neither would we have had the world we live in now if we just had more and better computer clubs), which is where my research comes in: I think if we make fabrication technology available for discretionary use (the other 99% of users), we may develop entirely different ways we interact with the physical matter around us.

The 3D models for laser cutting, which I focused on in my PhD, get the field closer to the ability for multiple users to build on the work of others and customize models that are made by experts with much more technical experience than they have. They are an example of a more portable format for fabrication compared to the status quo. To stick with the analogy of computing: we would never have been able to write something as complex as a 3D modeling environment for laser cutting (kyub) without being able to build on libraries and decades of experience and knowledge such as Three.JS. But, maybe more strikingly, my uncle who may have no technical background at all is now able to create and host his own website.

To come back to your initial question of which professions benefit: this ability to build on the work of others and customize content made by experts will have direct impacts in for example the fashion and production industries (what is now considered as “fancy” tailor-made products would be accessible to everyone through customization interfaces), medical industry and sports (tools would be optimized for your body as opposed to “one-size-fits all”), education (children could learn about the world by making objects themselves, kyub is already running workshops in which high schoolers make musical instruments and basic furniture), and customization to specific users allows making much more accessible products. But as with computing, the real impacts may go far beyond what we imagine now, so I am excited to see and help steer its direction.


What are the biggest challenges and opportunities of HCI?

As you are all familiar with software engineering, you know how hard it is to capture reality in a model objectively. “Users” are a particularly unpredictable entity to model. HCI sort of helps software engineers make tools to bridge the knowledge gap of user not understanding the software features and the software not understanding the user’s intention. Any mismatch between these results in massive failures making a lot of software development irrelevant. Over time, this challenge has manifested itself in 1D (command-line interfaces), then 2D (graphical user interfaces and touch/mouse input devices) and recently in 3D (VR and haptics and 3D scanning). A next big challenge for HCI is the input and output of physical matter that raises all sorts of new questions around the physical environment we interact in.


What was the most exciting project for you during your time as a PhD student at HPI and why?

I do not see my PhD as a chain of individual projects but rather the progression of one big project: portable laser cutting. But given that the work got published as individual papers, I have two favorites: assembler3 was the project where my agenda really started to come together, I was fortunate to work with a large team of excellent HPI students on this which turned this project into a fantastic experience (Conrad Lempert, Lukas Rambold, Carl Goedecken, Ingo Apel, Laurenz Seidel, Markus Brand, Erik Brendel, Yannis Kommana, Ben Hurdlehey, and Pascal Crenzin). The other project that was extremely exciting was the first project I lead myself: Mobile Fabrication, I still love the broad vision of this work and really learned during this project how the sausage is made.


What is your vision for working at Cornell Tech?

Making digital fabrication a mainstream phenomenon.

This still presents several challenges. In my lab we will continue to build software systems making models easier to reuse and customize, a challenge I set out to tackle in my PhD, but which will take much more to fully succeed. We will furthermore explore what the hardware of such mainstream fabrication machines will be like. As I set out to study in a paper titled Mobile Fabrication for UIST2016, these machines may well have a fundamentally different mobile form factor and resulting use case. And finally, the challenges ahead are not just technological, but also require societal adoption and changes in education. In our lab, we strive to make real-world impact by not just studying these phenomena but also actively building systems to facilitate change and bringing these in contact with real users. The expertise and physical location of my Matter of Tech lab make us uniquely positioned to address challenges on both ends of the spectrum.


Thank you a lot for your time. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

We are looking forward to stay in contact with you and to follow your work and your upcoming discoveries.