Quick links

Parastoo Abtahi, expert in human-computer interaction, joins the faculty

Parastoo Abtahi. Photo by Yugo Takahashi

By the Office of Engineering Communications

Parastoo Abtahi, expert in human-computer interaction, has joined the computer science faculty as an assistant professor.

Abtahi’s research focuses primarily on augmented reality and virtual reality interfaces and how virtual content can blend into our physical spaces. Her work is about finding ways to design technology that allows humans to communicate and interact with interfaces and devices in a more intuitive and effortless way.

At Stanford, where she completed her Ph.D. in computer science, Abtahi’s research focused on how to simulate the feeling of touch while using virtual reality. “When using a commercial virtual reality device, we get no sense of texture, weight, or stiffness,” said Abtahi. But this information is often crucial to how we experience the world.

According to Abtahi, her research showed that while it may not be possible to perfectly replicate the feeling of touch in virtual reality with simple and inexpensive devices, it is possible to leverage the limits of human sensory perception to create an illusion of realistic touch. By tweaking the position of a user’s virtual hand in virtual reality, for example, a small drone can appear to be positioned perfectly to evoke a particular shape and texture in their physical hand.

After completing her doctoral work, Abtahi was a visiting research scientist at Meta Reality Labs Research in Toronto. While there she did research on ways for users to easily control devices with minimal effort, using subtle hand gestures. Sliding one finger on top of another to increase or decrease the volume of an earbud, for example.

To design these interactive systems, Abtahi said, it’s necessary to first understand how people think and move in the world and how they naturally communicate with others. “It’s really important for us to deeply understand, and leverage, human perception and cognition,” said Abtahi.

At Princeton, she leads the Situated Interactions Lab as part of the Princeton Human-Computer Interaction Group. New work from her lab delves into spatial computing, which focuses on how augmented reality displays can deliver information in real time — pulling up directions on a headset while walking, or getting interactive instructions on how to assemble a piece of furniture while putting it together. These are tasks we now perform while looking at a phone or a tablet or a piece of printed paper. Abtahi wants to deliver this useful information through augmented reality headsets in a way that feels seamless to the user.

After arriving at Princeton in September 2023, Abtahi co-taught COS 436 “Human-Computer Interaction” with Andrés Monroy-Hernández, assistant professor of computer science. The course covered core topics related to interaction design and social computing. It also focused on how to implement these principles in practice, first by inviting experts from industry to answer questions in virtual Q&A sessions, then requiring students to build and evaluate their own interactive projects from scratch — something no one had built before.

One group created an augmented reality interface that could visualize 3D math functions from hand-written equations. Another built an app where students could give real-time feedback to an instructor, sending a buzz to the instructor’s wristband if multiple students in the class were confused. These two teams had their research published in the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Abtahi said the class was designed to help students cultivate a human-centered perspective on the technologies they build. “Not building systems in isolation but thinking deeply about human needs and how people interact with these technologies and how they use them as tools,” she said. “That's exactly what I hope to do in my lab here at Princeton. How do we extend people's abilities and augment their intelligence with the technologies that we build?”

Follow us: Facebook Twitter Linkedin