Gregory Abowd spent a career thinking about ‘computer-human’ interaction. Now he’s won the field’s coveted ‘Lifetime Research Award’

Gregory Abowd, Dean of the College of Engineering. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gregory D. Abowd, dean of Northeastern’s College of Engineering, has spent a career thinking about how the expansion of computing capabilities beyond the desktop actually helps everyday people. 

All of that thinking has now earned him the “Lifetime Research Award” from the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction, or SIGCHI.  

According to the organization’s website, SIGCHI is the “world’s largest association of professionals who contribute towards the research and practice of human-computer interaction.”

“This award is a big deal,” Abowd says. “I look at the people who have received this award in the past with awe. They’re people I’ve looked up to and the whole community looks up to. To be in that company is amazing.”

Before joining Northeastern in 2021 in his role as dean, Abowd was a former professor and endowed chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. While there, his research focus was on “ubiquitous computing.” The term dates back to the 1980s, referring to the growth of computing beyond the desktop, where it was first confined.

“Essentially it was a move away from desktop computing to computing spread throughout our environment—hence the term ‘ubiquitous,’” Abowd says.

Abowd’s work focused on the “inventions and application” of ubiquitous computing technologies. In other words, he says, how what was then a potential “off-the-desktop form of computing” could be “meaningful in everyday life.”

“Dean Abowd is one of the world’s top scholars in ubiquitous computing, software engineering, and technologies for autism,” says Northeastern Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David Madigan. “This lifetime achievement award from SIGCHI is a spectacular recognition of the impact of his work.”

Abowd’s career has zeroed in on the social impacts of the proliferation of computing—how, for example, it has impacted the classroom, the household and the health care sector, among other areas. Indeed, his work in the classroom focused on harnessing emerging technologies to provide students and teachers with a more seamless augmented learning experience.

“I worked on a project in 1995 that, at the time, was called ‘Classroom 2000,’” Abowd says. “We were trying to augment a university classroom to be able to allow, not only the instructors to have richer access to materials to present in class—at that time the web was emerging and there were electronic whiteboard capabilities, so we asked how could we allow someone to use those capabilities to present material—but more importantly, providing a service to students so that the room could record and collect a meaningful multimedia record of the lecture.”

The ubiquitous computing system that emerged from the Classroom 2000 project was subsequently adopted by Georgia Tech and a handful of universities across the U.S. 

“I actually considered commercializing it—probably should have—but thought that others were going to do it, so I went on to other research areas,” Abowd says. “And that was a very influential project that demonstrated this notion of creating a ‘living laboratory,’ so to speak, for the exploration of new technologies.”

Abowd would then go on to found the “Aware Home Research Initiative” in 1998, which sought to “develop the requisite technologies to create a home environment that can both perceive and assist its occupants.”

No doubt, Abowd’s research contributions played a role in his receiving this honor; but so too, he believes, did his academic leadership.

“I think one of the reasons I was considered for this award is … the research impact I have had over my career; but another very important piece of this is the students I have graduated over the years,” Abowd says. 

Abowd has mentored and graduated 35 Ph.D. students, 21 of whom have gone to become “chairs, deans, vice provosts and endowed professors” at their respective universities.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.