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Kevin Li

Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley – Cupertino, to be exact – Kevin Li was steeped in a world of technology and innovation from an early age. He happened to be good at programming, math and physics, and he credits his father – a big proponent of engineering – for influencing his scientific and methodological approach to problem-solving. It seemed Kevin was a shoe-in for the life of an innovator.

But, it wasn’t until pursuing his undergraduate degree that Kevin really gravitated toward the notion of research and working with computers. He explains, “I was working on browsing interfaces and new ways of looking at search. The work led to a publication, which allowed me to go to a conference, and that’s when I saw all the cool different technologies that people around the world are working on. That’s why I decided to go into human computer interaction.”

Today as a researcher at AT&T Labs, Kevin puts his expertise to work by inventing new devices and new ways of interacting with existing ones. Kevin notes that, “When my friends ask me about my job, and I tell them what my day-to-day looks like, they all agree that I have the luckiest job in the world.” We met with Kevin recently to learn more about what constitutes the “luckiest job in the world.” Here’s an excerpt from our discussion.

It’s what you do, with what we do… 
I think what our tagline is really about is the fact that AT&T is an enabler. AT&T offers a lot of enabling technologies to let people explore a wide variety of different solutions to various problems.

What are some of your favorite projects?
One of the projects I really like is the haptics-enabled steering wheel. So the idea is we can make driving safer by augmenting the steering wheel with vibration motors. Right now when you are driving around with a GPS navigation unit, you have audio and visual cues coming on the screen. Drivers have to look at the screen to figure out where they’re going, and that diverts their attention from the road. But, it also takes mental resources to look at this thing.

So the idea is, if we can transfer some of the information on to the steering wheel and vibrate it in a way that users understand out of the box, then they can know when to turn left or when to turn right without really having to think about it.

How does your work enhance the customer experience?
One of the key aspects of the kinds of technologies that I work on is that they enhance the user’s experience by making things seem easy to use and I think a big part of that is not just taking a technology focus, but looking at it with a psychology perspective.

We’ve learned certain ways of interacting with the world around us, and we can actually take advantage of a lot of those experiences by injecting them into the technologies we design. In doing so, we can create much better interfaces and research.

So the steering wheel is great because it frees up the user’s mental resources to do other things, rather than forcing them to do one thing or another. It augments their ability, by allowing them to be safer on the road.

“When my friends ask me about my job, and I tell them what my day-to-day looks like, they all agree that I have the luckiest job in the world.”

What attracted you to AT&T Labs?
I came to AT&T Labs for the freedom to work with really smart people on projects that aren’t necessarily six months or one year out, but have a much further time horizon that give you a chance to explore and think creatively.

What piece of advice would you give to young people today?
One piece of advice I would give young people who don’t necessarily know what they want to do yet is to think about engineering as more about solving problems and applying the math to actually do something more interesting, more useful.

I can do math, I can write programs, but I don’t actually enjoy the act of sitting there, typing away. I enjoy the idea of exploring a glimpse of the future – applying some of these techniques that you have learned in school to solve real-world problems that may not even exist yet but you could see in the future.

What’s a big goal for you personally or professionally?
My personal and professional goals are probably very similar, which is to have impact and to really affect the people’s day-to-day lives. So, from a professional standpoint that means getting some technology in front of people that really makes their lives better. From a personal standpoint, that means having some impact on students and letting them see how they can potentially improve lives.

Here’s how the haptics-enabled steering wheel works. When it's time to turn left, the steering wheel will produce a series of vibrations moving counterclockwise. The wheel has 20 actuators that can vibrate in any pattern to indicate directions. This helps remove the distraction that typical navigation screens can cause. Initial research shows that it works well and that it's less distracting for drivers. When different types of vibrations are applied to deliver more information, it can help us to understand what our connected devices are trying to tell us — without looking.