RWTH Welcomes Visitors for HumTec Day


Cutting apples or picking up breadcrumbs are simple everyday activities. But these hand movements can also serve as patterns for orientation when it comes to developing the gesture-based computers of the future. 


As Professor Irene Mittelberg explains the idea, keyboard commands such as ‘cut’ or ‘erase’ can be replaced by familiar gestures in front of the computer screen. The Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Semiotics at the RWTH Faculty of Arts and Humanities is head of the interdisciplinary research project “Natural Media” conducted at HumTec.

Collaboration Between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences

HumTec is a socalled Project House at RWTH Aachen, where humanities and social sciences researchers closely collaborate with engineers and natural scientists on interdisciplinary topics that are highly relevant for society at large.

  • How can urban development and inner-city transport be adapted to meet the needs of an ever increasing number of elderly people?
  • How will we travel and heat our homes in the future, without fully depleting the natural resources of our planet?
  • What developments will make our working lives easier?

There is, for example, the question of how human beings will communicate with technical devices. The Natural Media project investigates how people communicate intuitively with the help of diverse media. As Irene Mittelberg explains, “For us, natural media are all means of communication that human beings naturally come equipped with, including language, gesture, body movements, and eye movements.”

Over the last decades, the focus was predominantly on language-based developments. But in many man-machine interactions, gestures are playing an increasingly important role. Mittelberg and her interdisciplinary team of linguists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and computer scientists investigate human arm, hand, and head movements in their innovative gesture lab. An optical Motion Capture System records these movements with the help of fourteen infrared cameras in 3D, a process that is accurate to the millimeter and the millisecond level. Subsquently the data are mathematically analyzed in order to detect movement type and gesture space patterns. The results are being used in the development of gesture-based communications applications and clinical therapies.

HumTec Broadens Research Perspective

As Professor Michael Vorländer explains, "the HumTec project house was established in 2008 at RWTH Aachen as part of the University's application to Germany's Excellence Initiative. Since its inception, it has been contributing to the University's interdisciplinary top-level research. Vorländer, who is Chair of Technical Acoustics and Spokesperson for the HumTec Directorate names several activities that continue to receive support and funding at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities beyond the second funding phase of the Excellence Initiative, which attests to their high societal relevance.

One of these activities is the Urban Future Outline project, UFO for short, where medical researchers, sociologists, linguists, natural scientists, engineers and experts from other fields collaborate on four large subprojects.

UFO: Four Major Subprojects

"U-Turn" is concerned with the "urban turn" and invstigates how high quality of life in city districts can be secured in view of changing inhabitant needs.

"FuEne" develops a roadmap to achieve a sustainable and ecologically-friendly transition to renewable energies, the so-called 'energy transition'.

"FuEco" analyzes stresses through noise, heat and particulate matter in model cities in order to develop promising preventive countermeasures.

In this context, new mobility concepts play also a role – those are the focus of "FuMob". Here as well, the involved engineers depend on collaboration with medical researchers, humanities scholars, and social scientists. As Vorländer explains, "technological solutions for new urban districts – in an aging society, for example –, can only succeed when the needs of the affected people are identified and taken into account."


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