Karan Ahuja Wins ACM SIGCHI Outstanding Dissertation Award

The dissertation advances the state of the art in high-fidelity user tracking and digitization and opens new paradigms in augmented and virtual reality, health sensing, and natural user interfaces

Northwestern Engineering’s Karan Ahuja earned a 2024 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) Outstanding Dissertation Award, which recognizes excellent dissertation research in human-computer interaction (HCI).

Evaluated on technical depth, significance of the research contribution, potential impact on the field, and quality of presentation, the SIGCHI Outstanding Dissertation Award is given annually to up to five recent doctorate recipients worldwide.

Karan Ahuja"I'm honored to receive the ACM SIGCHI Outstanding Dissertation award,” Ahuja said. “This accolade reflects our field's commitment to creating technologies that have societal impact. It motivates me to continue innovating in ways that bridge the gap between people and digital worlds, making technology more accessible and intuitive for everyone."

This August, Ahuja will join the Department of Computer Science as a Lisa Wissner-Slivka and Benjamin Slivka Assistant Professor in Computer Science and director of the Sensing, Perception and Interactive Computing Exploration (SPICE) Lab. He is currently a visiting faculty researcher at Google, leading efforts on Google XR.

Ahuja’s dissertation, titled “Practical and Rich User Digitization,” advances the state of the art in high-fidelity user tracking and digitization and opens new paradigms in augmented and virtual reality, health sensing, and natural user interfaces.

Ahuja’s research addresses the challenge of understanding and interpreting human behavior and actions in everyday environments.

“The existing spectrum of technology for this purpose is polarized: on one end, mobile and pervasive consumer devices estimate coarse metrics like step counts and sedentariness, but fall short in comprehensively understanding complex human behaviors,” Ahuja said. “On the other end, detailed professional digitization systems, such as motion capture suits and multi-camera rigs, are impractical for everyday use due to their high costs, privacy concerns, and need for specialized lab settings.”

Ahuja’s research transforms and democratizes this space by harnessing the diverse sensors in consumer devices like smartphones and smartwatches. He repurposed alternative minimally invasive and privacy-aware sensing approaches — including doppler, capacitive, lo-fi audio loudness sensors, and inertial measurement units — to enable full-body user digitization and estimate body pose, activities, and behavioral patterns.

“The eminently practical techniques promise a revolution in areas as diverse as wellness monitoring, rehabilitation, chronic condition management, clinical movement research, eldercare support, and embodied telepresence,” said the SIGCHI Awards Committee. “Expect to see these techniques on your devices soon.”

Many of Ahuja’s research projects have been open-sourced, deployed in-the-wild, licensed by tech companies, and shipped as a product feature. Notably, his activity recognition research has been licensed for commercialization by Fortune 500 companies. In addition, his work on classroom sensing with the EduSense team has been adopted in more than 45 classrooms across various universities, enhancing teaching productivity and contributing valuable pedagogical insights.

Ahuja’s studies on tracking arm motion to estimate hyperactivity as an ADHD biomarker have led to innovative approaches for early screening and diagnosis, including two research trials with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Also in the healthcare sphere, Ahuja’s novel approach to human activity recognition, called Vid2Doppler, demonstrated potential application for safety and fall-detection in home healthcare settings.

More recently, Ahuja’s research focuses on end-to-end systems for human sensing and tracking, followed by long-term behavioral understanding, ultimately closing the loop towards solving human augmentation.

Ahuja earned a PhD in HCI from Carnegie Mellon University in 2023, co-advised by Chris Harrison and Mayank Goel.

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