Meet the Faculty - Zhu-Tian Chen

Tell us about your journey to the University of Minnesota.

I got my Ph.D. at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2020. My research mainly focused on data visualization. After I got my degree, I decided to move to the United States. I spent my first year at the University of California San Diego as a postdoctoral associate in the design lab. Then I moved to Harvard University to continue my postdoc work. Last year I started looking for faculty positions. Fortunately, I got the chance to interview at the University of Minnesota and get an offer. Minnesota is a top university and the environment here is pretty awesome. The department is very collegial and supportive. I enjoyed delightful conversations with the faculties, staff, and students. I feel very comfortable here; it’s a great fit.

I have always had a personal interest in computer science. I like to build things and create dynamic, interactive projects. Computer science was a great fit for me to be able to pursue my personal interests; you can write code to create interactive and dynamic things.

We would love to hear more about your research!

My research interests are in data visualization, or how to visually represent data so that humans can make better use of it. There is more and more data generated everyday, everywhere. With the amount of data available, it is difficult for the general user to make sense of this data and make decisions. We want to help users benefit from and interact with data in their daily activities. Particularly, my research looks at using data to help augment human intelligence in daily activities like going to the grocery store, driving, and watching sports games. To achieve this goal, I leverage tenets from different fields, like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction. The final goal of my work is to develop systems that are similar to J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man. It can assist you on a daily basis.

To achieve this goal, I am currently using the sports domain as a testbed. One example would be assisting audiences in watching a football game. Football is a highly tactical game and it is not always easy to see and understand everything that is going on. The technology I am working on would help the audience better understand the in-game decisions of the athletes by augmenting the game with data visualizations in real time. Questions like: Why did they pass to one player instead of another? Why did they run instead of throw? Why didn’t they go for it on fourth down? The techniques developed and lessons learned from sports can help me develop future systems for more general dynamic daily scenarios.

What do you hope to accomplish with this work? What is the real-world impact for the average person?

The real world impact would be to generally improve human knowledge and capabilities with data. I want to integrate computation into everyday life more naturally. Maybe in the next five years, people could wear AR glasses when they walk around to seamlessly combine computation with daily life. That would help humans think more quickly, make better decisions, and ultimately lead to a better quality of life.

What courses are you teaching next fall? What can students expect to get out of that class?

Next semester I plan to have a seminar about XR + AI + Visualization. It’s all about developing interactive visualization systems to help users work with data and information in XR environments. XR, or Mixed Reality, is an umbrella term, which usually means the techniques to merge physical and digital worlds. Students would get a high-level overview of the state-of-the-art research in this field, as well as some hands-on experience. They would develop their own XR systems and write a paper on it that could be submitted to conferences. Overall, they would gain some cutting-edge research experience.

What do you do outside of the classroom for fun?

I like to play video games. I also play soccer during the summer and I enjoy playing with my pets. I have a cat and a dog. I also like coding for fun. I will do random projects that I am interested in because I like building things.

Do you have a favorite spot in the city?

I went to a Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium and it was a fantastic experience. That was my first time watching a football game. It was very exciting and the Vikings won. I didn’t know the rules and was searching for them in between plays. I would definitely go again!

Is there anything else you would like students to know about you or your work?

I am always open to working with students. Feel free to reach out if you are interested in my line of work. I have many research ideas and would love to have students help me establish a new lab.