Students from PIxL Lab and EE Dept. win competition to help emergency responders

NMSUIcehouseTeamNMSU Icehouse Challenge team members, from left, Cayden Wilson, Hitesh Nidhi Sharma (PIxL lab), Sultan Alharthi (PIxL lab), computer science professor Zach Toups (PIxL lab), and Sachin Sunka (PIxL lab). (Photo: Courtesy photo)

LAS CRUCES – In an effort to improve the safety and efficiency of the country’s more than 23 million emergency responders, a team from New Mexico State University recently tied for first place for its development of tactical communication software as part of an international competition sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Dubbed the “Icehouse Challenge,” the goal of the competition was to enhance a responder’s situation awareness during emergencies by using wearable communication devices, such as smart phones, smart bands and smart eyeglasses. After two rounds of elimination based on proposals and prototypes, the final round of the competition was in June during the 2016 IEEE Body Sensor Networks Conference in San Francisco.

“We have millions of first responders who risk their lives every day, so any kind of technological support that we can provide is potentially beneficial,” said Zach Toups, project adviser and assistant professor of computer science in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I’ve always seen it as a space where people are kind of underserved as far as technology goes, so it’s a good opportunity to design things that are helpful.”

Icehouse is a six-room, virtual training environment where real first responders and special operators “play” the roles of workers entering a dangerous situation. The NMSU team and other developers were tasked with creating technologies to help the workers perform their duties while also minimizing exposure to various threats.

“The main idea of the challenge was to look at technology and see if it’s ready for disaster responders or not,” said Hitesh Nidhi Sharma, a computer science masters student who helped design the software. “They were trying to see if these kinds of new, wearable technology are actually useable in real contexts or not – that’s why they set up this virtual game to simulate a real environment, and then see if the technology can be used in this semi-simulated environment, and maybe in real life as well.”

Using mixed reality, threats are electronically simulated and range from chemical hazards and explosions, to fires or injuries to team members.

At the conference, members of the U.S. Coast Guard – equipped with an Android cellphone, a Sony Smart Band and Sony Smart Eyeglasses – tested out the final software designs by going to separate “rooms” in the Icehouse and checking in at computer stations to see what threat was in that location. To alleviate the problem, first responders had to conduct different activities that simulated the physical exertion needed in real-life rescue scenarios.

For example, “the way you would put a fire out is by getting your heart rate up, so they’re jogging in place with fitness bands on,” Toups said. “It’s supposed to require this physical exertion, but also simulate the need to make choices about which room to tackle first – what order do you deal with things in.”

The equipment and software helped the emergency responders better communicate by providing decision support among team members, while also monitoring team members’ physiology and relaying data through displays in the smart glasses.

“The most important part of all of this is to find some way to help the disaster responders maintain situation awareness between the workers,” said Sultan Alharthi, a team member and interdisciplinary doctoral student. “So four workers have to keep track of all of their teammates through their heart rates, through the vital data that we collect.”

Icehouse 1.jpg

NMSU computer science graduate students Sultan Alharthi, left, and Hitesh Nidhi Sharma, right, along with computer science professor Zach Toups, demonstrate a wearable disaster response simulation game they developed.
(Photo: Darren Phillips/NMSU)

Programs were judged based on quality, user experience and quantitative metrics, including mission completion time, level of effort, length of exposure to hazards and threats neutralized.

At the conference, NMSU competed against two other schools, ultimately tying for first place with a team from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in Bavaria, Germany. The teams plan to collaborate on a publication comparing their Icehouse programs for next May’s ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver.

Other NMSU students involved in the project were Cayden Wilson, an undergraduate in the Department of Engineering Technology and Surveying Engineering, and Sachin Sunka, a computer science graduate student who plans to use the Icehouse project as his master’s thesis.

Supporting faculty members include Rolfe Sassenfeld, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology; Wei Tang, assistant professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Igor Dolgov, associate professor of engineering psychology.


Dana Beasley writes for University Communications and can be reached at

The original article came out in Las cruces sun news website, you can take a look at it here.


Investigating the Impact of Cooperative Communication Mechanics on Player Performance in Portal 2

Our paper, Investigating the Impact of Cooperative Communication Mechanics on Player Performance in Portal 2, was presented at Graphics Interface 2016 in Victoria, British Columbia! The paper is based on former-student Vaddi’s thesis, and was presented by Rina Wehbe, co-author. The paper addresses how players make use of game mechanics to communicate; while they find voice most effective, the ability to reference the gameworld is key to solving puzzles.

We expect the manuscript to be posted in the ACM Digital Library soon.

PIxL lab at CHI 2016


The ACM SIGCHI Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2016 in San Jose was the biggest CHI conference ever with more than 3,500 participants. The research presented at the conference shows that the field of human-computer interaction has evolved drastically. The keynote sessions were exemplary as Marissa Mayer, Alan Kay, Salman Khan, Kimberly Bryant, Dayo Olopade, and Vishal Sikka shared their personal experiences making technologies to improve life. Alan Kay offered inspiring words: “Big companies just want to earn millions & billions. Great researchers create new industries worth trillions.”

There were many interesting research projects showcased at the conference. The Carolan Guitar by Steve Benford et al. focussed on artcodes and a guitar that told it own story through a mobile app. Microsoft Research showcased interaction of real and virtual objects using Oculus, Kinect, and Unity. A demonstration by Prof. Åsa Unander-Scharin showed how webcams can help generate relevant music by analyzing performer movement during a live performance event. Infosys showcased flight information simulation using samsung gear and VR, Google showcased its mobile User testing lab while HP demonstrated its projector and depth camera based scanner and alternate input device and Samsung demoed interaction of pictures in smart TVs using Android phones as remote controls.

A number of projects were relevant to research conducted at the PIxL Lab: the social impact of head-mounted devices, transparent interfaces, movement games, how gamers make breakthroughs, mapping in disaster, non-verbal communication and team performance in online gamescomparing different sensemaking approaches, and supporting sensemaking with spatially-aware mobile interactions.

Prof. Zachary O. Toups from the PIxL Lab, along with Ph.D. student Sultan Alharthi and graduate student Hitesh Nidhi Sharma attended the conference.

A video overview of the highlights is here: CHI 2016 Overview Video

A number of recorded research talks may be found here:

PIxL students finalists for wearables challenge!

NMSU’s Team DeSIGN, a collaboration between the PIxL Lab in the Computer Science Department, the Department of Engineering Technology & Surveying Engineering, the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Psychology Department, was named one of four finalist teams for the Body Sensor Networks 2016 Icehouse Challenge to design wearable computers for disaster responders. Team DeSIGN leveraged its collective experience studying and designing for disaster contexts, unmanned system control, and wearables to develop a winning design. At the BSN conference, US Coast Guard operatives will undertake a live-action disaster response simulation game using the wearable software designed by the competing teams to determine the best design.

The team will receive wearable prototyping equipment (including Sony’s SmartEyeglass platform) and funding for travel. The competition carries a grand prize of $20,000.

Team DeSIGN consists of:

  • Sachin Sunka (PIxL, CS)
  • Sultan Alharthi (PIxL, CS)
  • Hitesh Nidhi Sharma (PIxL, CS)
  • Rolfe Sassenfeld (ET&SE)
  • Cayden Wilson (ET&SE)
  • Wei Tang (ECE)
  • Igor Dolgov (Psych)
  • Zachary O. Toups (PIxL, CS)


Joining PIxL Lab


Interested in supporting disaster response with gameplay? 

Excited about the opportunities to play afforded by wearable computers and mixed reality? 

The PIxL Lab is seeking talented Ph.D. students!

The Play and Interactive Experiences for Learning (PIxL) Lab generally has funded openings for new Ph.D. students in the New Mexico State University Computer Science Department. Selected student will undertake research with Prof. Zachary O. Toups in one of the following areas (or some intersection of them): game design, interface design, games for learning, mixed reality, wearable computing, and/or disaster response information technology. Any project that fits into the general scope of the lab’s research will be considered.

The PIxL Lab conducts research on games for education, with an emphasis on game user interfaces and real-world interaction (mixed reality, wearable computing). Current projects include mixed reality games for designing wearable computers, games for educating disaster responders, studying communication in Portal 2, wearable unmanned systems interfaces, and game arenas for testing AI agents.

Candidates should be motivated to research games and play, as demonstrated through an initial research proposal, and be prepared to demonstrate strong computer science skills. The NMSU CS Department requires that all incoming Ph.D. students complete qualifying exams within the first year in Design and Analysis of Algorithms and Data Structures; Programming Languages; Discrete Mathematics; one of either Operating Systems or Computer Architecture; and one elective subject. Qualified candidates are expected to show high scores in the previous subjects, with the expectation that they will succeed at the exams.

Required Application Materials: Applicants should provide the following application materials for a funded position in the PIxL Lab (application to the university and the department are independent processes; information on the other application processes is found at: and

  • A recent CV.
  • An unofficial transcript with relevant computer science courses highlighted; if the university uses a grading scheme different from the US 4-point scale, please provide the appropriate transformation to the 4-point scale.
  • An initial research proposal, no more than one page in length (excluding references), that identifies your research interests, outlines a program of study in computer science, and explains why your expertise is a good fit for the project.
  • Contact information for two references; for promising candidates, we may request a letter of recommendation from these references.

Please email all required materials to with the following subject: “PIxL Lab Ph.D. Application”.

PIxL @ CHI PLAY 2015

The PIxL Lab presented five works-in-progress posters at CHI PLAY 2015 in London:

Collaborative Planning Gameplay from Disaster Response Practice

Imperfect Robot Control in a Mixed Reality Game to Teach Hybrid Human-Robot Team Coordination

Understanding Player Attitudes Towards Digital Game Objects

Validating Test Chambers to Study Cooperative Communication Mechanics in Portal 2

Designing to Split Attention in a Mixed Reality Game