Charlie HughesElectrical Engineering and Computer Science
When faculty members are asked how they came to UCF, their answers typically fall into similar categories of reasoning: opportunity, research interests, etc. Not so with Professor Charlie Hughes. “I lost a bet,” says Hughes. That might be a little unsettling if he were a newly hired assistant professor. But, he has a distinguished career at UCF comprised over thirty years, which continues to this day.
Hughes, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, is also a professor in the School of Visual Arts and Design, as well as a contributing faculty member of the Institute for Simulation and Training, both at UCF. And, he oversees the Media Convergence Lab - one of the coolest places at the university.
Born in the residential Boston suburb of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Professor Hughes is a life-long Red Sox and Celtics fan. With an undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in mathematics and a Ph.D. in computer science from Penn State, his research interests these days concern the topic of mixed reality. “Mixed reality is the blending of the real with the virtual into a single landscape,” says Hughes. “We’re fundamentally focused on how to use interactive simulation to assess and improve people’s performance of real-world tasks.”
Upon receiving his undergraduate degree, Hughes worked at the Aerospace Division of RCA in Burlington, Mass. He was a math aide, which is what computer programmer interns were called in those days. Inspired by the job at RCA, he went on to get his Ph.D. in computer science. His dissertation was on computability theory – specifically, the limitations of algorithmic computation. “Even though I was a theoretician, I always kept my hands dirty,” says Hughes. He not only worked full time while pursing his doctorate, he co-wrote the IBM virtual mainframe program Assist-V, which was used to teach Assembler and Systems programming.
Flash-forward to today and there are three areas where research takes him. He focuses his theoretical research in the graphics and human computer interface areas. The applications of mixed reality include a number of training and simulation systems. For example, Hughes is a co-principal investigator, along with a nursing professor, on a grant to create a system with life-sized, human-puppeteered avatars that teaches middle school girls strategies on how to resist peer pressure.
Another project underway for Hughes and a team of over a dozen is to recreate the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair in a virtual environment in order to show the interconnections between science and engineering with the arts and humanities. The challenge here is that the fairgrounds were large and complex. Getting this complete and historically accurate, even to the point of accurately modeling every luminaire streetlight, is a wonderful challenge for this team of computer scientists, artists, storytellers and historians. The goal is to create a downloadable environment, a means to create your own Future Fair exhibits, a museum experience and a series of after-school programs, all in time to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the fair in 2014. This project began with a small grant from the National Endowment for Humanities and then was further funded by a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation. The team is working with the Queens Museum of Art and the New York Hall of Science, both of which are located on the grounds of the original fair in Flushing Meadows. “We will recreate all 660 acres of the fairgrounds, modeling its 140 pavilions in good detail and will focus on 25 of the venues in exquisite detail,” says Hughes. “Interestingly, that fair was all about predicting the future. We will show not only the technology and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) content, but also the influence of politics, culture and other factors on the individual predictions. Avatars will accompany you through the fair, providing personalized guidance and historical/cultural connections, as well as continuity between visits.”
As a professor, Hughes directs and advises one post-doctoral associate, fourteen doctoral candidates, and five undergraduates. His former students have gone on to work at Google, Disney, and other high-profile companies.
Hughes also mentors students who are in the EXCEL program. EXCEL is UCF’s innovative program to increase student success in the first two years of their college career in a STEM discipline. EXCEL boosts students’ STEM skills to prepare them for their forthcoming engineering education. “I have five undergraduates in my lab. Two are EXCEL students and one is a RAMP (Research and Mentoring Program) student, who is also supported by EXCEL,” he says.
He is a strong supporter of the EXCEL program and is emphatic that it provides opportunity for students to gain research lab experience earlier in their academic careers than they otherwise could. The program also allows students more time to mature and to benefit from funding while they do so.
Hughes compares the U.S. approach to education with the Swiss system, where students are assessed and earmarked by age 16 to determine the career paths available to them for the rest of their lives. “You get time to bloom here,” says Hughes. “EXCEL is a perfect example of a system that allows students to mature at their own pace, because we each mature at a different age.”
“I like the assessment aspect of the EXCEL program, as well, because it puts accountability on the students,” he adds. “The program is good at follow up and tracking of the students.”
Although the number of awards Hughes has received is impressive and spans several decades, when asked which was his favorite, he responded without hesitation, “Pegasus award!” The Pegasus Professor designation is UCF’s highest honor for achievements in teaching, research and service. Hughes received it in 2007. “I’m most proud of it because it is all-encompassing, covering teaching, research, etc.”
Back to the Bet
So, what was the bet? After earning his Ph.D., and stints at the National Bureau of Standards as a postdoctoral student and at Penn State as a faculty member, Hughes went to work at the University of Tennessee. While there, he and a colleague (Associate Dean Terry Frederick, Founding Chair of Computer Science at UCF) were seeking funding for their respective computer science Ph.D. programs. As time progressed, both became frustrated at the challenges of getting their departments funded. Finally, they agreed that whoever acquired funding first, the other would follow. It turns out that Professor Frederick received the funding and so Hughes joined him at UCF. It is safe to say that Hughes made the best of it. Although he lost the bet, Hughes has benefitted immensely, as have UCF and its students.